For green card holders who have lived peacefully in the US for at least five years, the path to citizenship is direct and simple. Yet, as many as 4,000 people who are living in Santa Fe County have not taken that step.
Citizenship Now, a program of the local workers advocacy and immigrants rights organization Somos Un Pueblo Unido, has guided five cohorts of about 25 people each through the naturalization process to successfully achieve citizenship, with a sixth group in process.
This month, Somos plans to hold citizenship information meetings at Santa Fe's public libraries to find participants for the seventh cohort.
The members of this group will also have an important job beyond obtaining a US passport: In the spring, Citizenship Now participants will go door-to-door to help New Mexico achieve a complete count in the upcoming 2020 census as part of the program's civic engagement element. By sharing their stories along the way, they may also inspire other permanent residents to become citizens.
People don't often know all the positive outcomes associated with citizenship, says Zulema Chavero, a community organizer with Somos who leads the Citizenship Now campaign.
Previous census data shows naturalized citizens earn 50 to 70% more than non-citizens, and are 30% more likely to be homeowners. They also get full access to public programs such as Medicaid. Citizens can live abroad and travel without fear of losing their immigration status, can more easily gain favorable immigration status for family members, and cannot be deported for breaking the law.
According to a report by the National Partnership for New Americans, naturalized citizens also increase local spending and tax revenue.
Yet, without knowing someone who's gone through it, the naturalization process can seem intimidating enough to stop people from applying, Chavero tells SFR. Some people may not even realize they are eligible, especially in light of big hurdles for people who come to the US without obtaining green cards. For many others, a language barrier stands between them and a US passport.
"There is a very real lack of information in our community and a lot of misinformation that makes achieving citizenship seem more difficult than it is, or makes people afraid to apply. That's really why we decided to do this outreach," Chavero tells SFR at the organization's headquarters in Midtown.
Somos started the program in Santa Fe in 2018 with funding from the National Partnership for New Americans. Working in collaboration with the City of Santa Fe and half a dozen other organizations, Somos helps applicants correctly fill out applications and prepare for the exam and interview, find legal advice and English language tutors, and get financial assistance with application fees.
Chavero says Somos' program distinguishes itself from others across the country in its focus on local civic engagement. The goal is not simply to help participants attain citizenship, but to teach them how to be active participants in their communities and in the democratic process.
"The really exciting part is that we have so many new leaders coming out of this project, we have a lot of new leaders in our community," says Chavero, adding later, "it's really important as citizens that they vote and invite other people to participate too."
Last year, Citizenship Now says participants reached 3,200 low-propensity voters to get out the vote, and knocked on 5,800 doors to make sure residents had accurate information about the 2020 census. They participated in a City Council candidate forum during the local election, helped organize with the United Workers Center to support raising minimum wage and advocated at the Legislature.
Maria Elizabeth Lara, Somos Un Pueblo Unido's 2020 census campaign coordinator, can personally attest to the success of Somos' approach to citizenship.
The 23-year-old began working with Somos as a summer intern and then participated in the program's first citizenship cohort with her mother and her sister last year. Within just a few months of signing up for Citizenship Now, she traded in her green card for a US passport.
For Lara, who has gone to school in the US since kindergarten, the naturalization process was a breeze. But she says her mother had a much more difficult time and might not have followed through with the application if she hadn't had the support from Somos.
For her part, Lara says she gained the most from the program's emphasis on community engagement.
"I'm definitely much more invested in actually voting than I think I would have been," she tells SFR. "None of us had ever voted before and we didn't understand how it worked. Then we all went to vote together for the first time as a group, and that was a super powerful experience for me."
Somos partners with the New Mexico Immigrant Law Center to help potential participants determine their eligibility and deal with any legal issues. For most green card holders, eligibility is straightforward, but it can be complicated for people who fit into some specific categories or have had run-ins with the law.
"The most important thing is never to lie on your application and always try to tell 100% the truth," says Chavero.
Somos also partners with the Guadalupe Credit Union to help participants pay the application fee, and with the Literacy Volunteers of Santa Fe to help participants study American history and culture questions for the exam and provide language tutoring to prepare for the interview. English proficiency is necessary to pass.
Other partners of the program are the Adelante; Northern New Mexico Central Labor Council; Santa Fe Area Homebuilders Association and Santa Fe Neighborhood Law Center.
CITIZENSHIP NOW FORUM
5 pm Thursday, Feb. 13. Free.
Santa Fe Public Library, Southside Branch
6599 Jaguar Dr., 424-7832