Cecilia Olivares arrived at the Cathedral of Christ the Light in downtown Oakland at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, carrying with her a small foldable stool. She had left her home in Hayward well before sunrise, determined to be first in line for a citizenship application workshop hosted at the cathedral at 10 a.m.
“Right now, I am a resident, but it is not the same as being a citizen,” Olivares said in Spanish, her native language. Like the hundreds of hopeful citizenship applicants at the workshop, Olivares has been in the United States for years—nine, in her case—and the workshop was a rare opportunity to receive free legal consultation about the application process.
Citizenship applications are processed through the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security. Applicants must already be legal permanent residents, an immigration status that allows residents to live and work in the U.S. indefinitely.
The Catholic Dioceses of Oakland, Catholic Charities of the East Bay (CCEB), and the East Bay Naturalization Collaborative co-organized Saturday’s workshop, bringing together over 200 volunteers to help participants fill out necessary forms, apply for application fee waivers and organize their immigration records.
“It’s almost a one-to-one ratio,” said CCEB’s chief program officer Christopher Martinez, describing the number of applicants and volunteers. “Everyone is going to get really individualized attention today.” Martinez said his group advertised the workshop to both volunteers and citizenship applicants at local parishes, on Catholic radio stations, and even picked up media attention from Univision and Korean television stations.
Volunteers wore badges listing their names and all of the languages they speak, making the workshop accessible to many different East Bay communities. “Collectively, we speak about 20 different languages,” Martinez said of the volunteers, whose badges listed everything from Italian to Korean to Tagalog. “We’re not just serving one community, we’re serving all communities.”
After receiving a number based on their arrival time, applicants were called into a large conference room with rows of tables and eager volunteers. First, volunteers helped each applicant determine if they met all of the requirements set forth by the USCIS for applying for citizenship. To start the process, applicants must prove they have been a legal permanent resident for at least five years and pass a background check.
Anita Mukherji, an attorney for CCEB, met with workshop participants who had concerns about their eligibility for citizenship. “There may be a red flag in the initial screening process,” she said. “We determine whether or not the applicant can move forward with the application process.”
Mukherji said some participants have criminal records or long periods of travel outside of the U.S. that can make them ineligible to apply. Occasionally, she said, applicants will come to the workshop without realizing they are already citizens.
While several dozen attorneys reviewed each participant’s eligibility, a separate group of volunteers helped applicants apply for a fee waiver. The citizenship application fee is $680, but USCIS will waive the fee for low-income individuals who can prove their household earns less than 150 percent of the “poverty guideline”—the income threshold the Department of Health and Human Services equates with living in poverty. This year, the poverty guideline for a family of four is an annual income of $24,250.
“To [pay this fee] out of our pocket is really, really too much,” said Rica, a workshop participant who asked to only use her first name. Bouncing a babbling toddler on her hip, Rica said she was only able to drive three of her family members to Oakland from her home in Vallejo for the workshop, but she wishes she could have brought them all.
After consulting with the attorneys and applying for fee waivers, applicants completed the application process by filling out form N-400, a 21-page document that asks for extensive personal information about the applicant and their family. Question topics range from military history and family immigration status to involvement with terrorist groups.
According to USCIS data, the agency received over 216,000 citizenship applications from April 1 to June 30 of this year. Combined, the two Bay Area USCIS field offices, located in San Jose and San Francisco, received 10,533 applications in the same time period.
For applicants at Saturday’s workshop, submitting their initial application is only the first step in a much longer process. According to CitizenPath, a website that hosts a variety of immigration forms, USCIS will contact eligible applicants within three to five weeks to schedule their biometrics appointment—a brief meeting where an agency representative collects the applicant’s fingerprints. Four to six months later, USCIS will schedule formal interviews with each applicant and, if the applicant is approved, he or she will finalize their citizenship at an oath ceremony.
Michael Barber, the bishop of the Catholic Dioceses of Oakland, attended the workshop and encouraged both volunteers and applicants. Barber, who was appointed to his position by Pope Francis, said the Pope’s recent visit to the U.S. has encouraged more discussion about immigration. “The Pope reminded us that in the United States, more than in almost any other country, almost all of our families came from somewhere else,” he said. “Let’s help people who have come here seeking the same dreams.”