Nuestra Casa, an organization serving Sunnyside’s Hispanic community, has increased its ability to help people become US citizens, which staff members say is a much sought-after service.
Executive Director Caty Padilla and Citizenship Program Coordinator Monica Romero-Castro became partially accredited representatives to provide legal naturalization assistance earlier this year, according to a press release.
The organization has been offering citizenship courses for many years. But speaking with community members, Nuestra Casa saw a need for additional assistance.
“We saw that there really was a need for naturalization legal services,” Padilla said. “Waiting times here to see a lawyer can be very long and sometimes that can put off applicants. It’s the last thing we want, so we decided to go there and ask for accreditation.
The Ministry of Justice granted Nuestra Casa accreditation in March 2020, with a representative.
“We quickly found that wasn’t enough,” Padilla said. So she and Romero-Castro began their own accreditation process.
The partial accreditation process took some time, Padilla and Romero-Castro said. They each had to spend 240 hours shadowing a DOJ-approved representative. And the pandemic has made it more difficult to find places where they can do their training.
Padilla said the organization receives at least five calls a day from people seeking naturalization. Cases that exceed the organization’s ability to help, such as those involving criminal histories, are referred to qualified attorneys.
Although the pandemic has slowed them down a bit, Padilla said the organization has helped around 25 people complete the naturalization process and another 15 are ongoing.
A long process
Obtaining citizenship is not a quick process, with high demand and a limited number of legal aid workers available.
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Yakima can take more than a year to process a person’s application, according to the release.
Nuestra Casa offers citizenship classes to help people prepare for the process. A semester consists of classes twice a week for 10 weeks, said citizenship program secretary Ariana Vargas. Some people take the course multiple times.
Classes moved online during the pandemic, but staff hope to bring them back in person in the spring. Padilla said class sizes will likely increase when they return and there is already a waiting list.
The naturalization process includes written and oral tests with questions about the applicant’s American civics and background. Nuestra Casa workers hold mock interviews with candidates to help them prepare.
Naturalization can also be an expensive process. The app alone costs $725. Going through a lawyer can increase the final price.
Padilla estimated that most people who complete the process through Nuestra Casa pay between $800 and $900 in total.
Nuestra Casa was founded to meet the needs of low-income immigrant women in the lower Yakima Valley, according to the organization’s website. Padilla said that over the years her reach has expanded to include more members of the Sunnyside community, including men and families.
In addition to naturalization assistance, Nuestra Casa offers classes in English as a second language, financial literacy, and understanding personal health.
Padilla and Romero-Castro said they were drawn to Nuestra Casa because of their own backgrounds. Both come from immigrant families and can understand the needs of their clients.
Romero-Castro became a citizen in 2019 and went through the application process on her own, she said.
“Sometimes when you don’t have that advice, you’re a little lost,” she said. “I think it’s made a huge difference to our community because now they have these tips.”
She is working on becoming an immigration lawyer to continue helping her community.
Padilla said citizenship is not the end of the job. Once people obtain citizenship, they feel more secure participating in their communities and making their voices heard politically.
“Ultimately, the more citizens, the more people who are civically engaged, the more we can work to improve our community,” she said.