In a diverse community like Silicon Valley, it's both a challenge—and an opportunity—to ensure our government reflects the interests of its residents. When elected leaders fail to address the needs of the very communities they are charged with serving, it’s more likely that people feel marginalized and disenfranchised.
It was a great opportunity, then, when a collaborative effort in Santa Clara County, including one of SVCF's community partners, SIREN, announced a series of Citizenship Day workshops in April. The events provided a highly sought-after opportunity for qualified residents to apply for citizenship and become eligible to vote in the upcoming presidential election. More than one-third of all residents in San Mateo and Santa Clara counties are immigrants. Many who are not already naturalized citizens have met all of the legal requirements to become naturalized. But the application process can be complicated, and the filing fees are hefty, so gaining help from an organization like SIREN is a tremendous benefit for applicants.
But Citizenship Day organizers faced a manpower problem: thanks to strong outreach and an easy phone registration system developed specifically for the workshops, more than 1,000 individuals had signed up for assistance at the first event, held April 2. Many more volunteers were needed to assist with the application process. I and other SVCF staff volunteered to help workshop applicants, excited about the immediate help we could provide to people applying for U.S. citizenship.
I arrived at the first event more than an hour before it started. Excited applicants were already lined up around the outside of the school gymnasium where the workshop was being held. An estimated 1,100 applicants attended orientations that day in 14 different languages. Attendees then met with on-site volunteer attorneys for initial screening interviews to ensure applicants had brought along the correct documents and met the application requirements.
Those who successfully completed the interviews were then referred to volunteers like me to work through an application that often took more than an hour to complete. More than 500 individuals received assistance from volunteers that day, and 314 applications were completed and prepared for submission to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Those who did not have all of the required documentation or had more complex application needs were asked to come to one of the legal service providers' offices or a later workshop.
One of my experiences illustrated the importance many newcomers place on attaining U.S. citizenship. A graduate of San Jose City College, one woman I helped had already spent many years as a preschool teacher in Silicon Valley schools. Her proud mother was with her that day, and they each told me several times how excited they were that the daughter could become a U.S. citizen and vote. At the end of our time together, the applicant’s father also joined us. It felt like a momentous family occasion when the daughter turned in her application. I was humbled to be part of that very significant experience, and excited to see how determined the woman was to have her say in the fall election.
As part of SVCF's commitment to solving the region's most challenging problems, we have funded projects for more than eight years that further immigrants' integration into this region. One aspect of that work supports projects that strengthen the infrastructure of legal services available to immigrants. The Citizenship Day workshops were a great example of how SVCF and our grantees work to further individuals' opportunities to work and improve their economic mobility.
By all accounts, the Citizenship Day events were a great success. To get involved as a volunteer or participate as an applicant in a future citizenship workshop, please visit the website for SVCF's community partner organization, SIREN: Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network.