The path to citizenship leads through the community

Crowds of Spanish-speaking parishioners in Los Angeles milled about the historic Nuestra Señora Reina de los Ángeles Catholic Church grounds Jan. 7, browsing through free children’s books—both bilingual and in Spanish—and enjoying colorful slices of Rosca de Reyes—the traditional crown-shaped cake marking the Christian celebration of the three kings visiting infant Jesus. Thanks to partnerships with local legal aid and community organizations, the AFT and its state and local affiliates were in the center of it all, not just handing out books but providing information for immigrant families about how to pursue a much more serious endeavor: U.S. citizenship through the AFT’s groundbreaking Together We Rise Citizenship Program, a labor and community partnership.

From left Salvador Sanabria, of El Rescate; Juan Ramirez, AFT and CFT; Rocio Rivas, a member of the Los Angeles United School District school board, who supported the event; Lilia Carreon, El Rancho Federation of Teachers president; and Claudia Rodriguez, UTLA.
From left Salvador Sanabria, of El Rescate; Juan Ramirez, AFT and CFT; Rocio Rivas, a member of the Los Angeles United School District school board, who supported the event; Lilia Carreon, El Rancho Federation of Teachers president; and Claudia Rodriguez, UTLA.

Being a part of the Los Angeles community, especially the school community, means participating in a rich tapestry of events like these and being a part of a community of families who come from all over the world—many of whom are “mixed status,” where some family members may be full citizens and others may not.

“Here in California, we have more than 2 million people who could become U.S. citizens,” says California Federation of Teachers Executive Vice President and AFT Vice President Juan Ramirez, who remembers coming to the United States from Mexico as a teenager. Ramirez, who was handing out cake during the event, understands how the AFT’s presence at events like these can make a difference to people who sometimes feel as if they are on the outside looking in.

Since 2020, the AFT has helped sponsor community fairs and informational sessions about ciudadanía, or citizenship. This past November and December, the AFT sponsored six informational sessions in the Los Angeles area; more are scheduled for January and February, with a citizenship clinic—with free legal counsel, funding to assist with application fees, and a community fair with food, games and giveaways—planned for March. Dozens more have been held in other states including California, Florida, Oregon and Texas, where larger numbers of immigrants live—though there are 9 million “lawful permanent residents” eligible for naturalization across the country.

“It’s part of our community work,” says Claudia Rodriguez, a member of the United Teachers Los Angeles board of directors. In a world where legal advice costs thousands of dollars and scammers charge high fees only to disappear, workshop participants—including some AFT members—are grateful to have reliable attorneys and advisers to consult, she says.

“It makes a difference when you tell them you are a teacher or from the union,” says Lilia Carreon, president of El Rancho Federation of Teachers in southern California; participants trust educators and worker advocates. “When they come into the room, you can see fear in their faces. After talking to us, you see a sense of relief and excitement. … I see the hope.”

The road to citizenship

“A lot of [clinic participants] don’t make a lot of money, and it’s hard for them to get counsel for free,” says Iran Alicea, president of the Hillsborough School Employees Federation based in Tampa, Fla. Partnering with Mi Familia Vota, the union has so far helped 20 people get their citizenship, including five who received scholarships to pay for application fees. Alicea attended several of the citizenship ceremonies, which are “super emotional,” he says. “They finally can say not only am I part of this country, I have a say in anything that goes on. I can vote.”

AFT member Mercedes Caceres, center, after her citizenship ceremony with HSEF President Iran Alicea, left, and Victor Moreno, also of HSEF, right.
AFT member Mercedes Caceres, center, after her citizenship ceremony with HSEF President Iran Alicea, left, and Victor Moreno, also of HSEF, right.

As a citizen, says Mercedes Caceres, a school custodian and a member of HSEA who attended a clinic and got financial assistance, “I have more opportunities in every sense.” Caceres, who came to the U.S. from Cuba 24 years ago, cherishes her life in a country she loves, the place she raised her children, and where her whole family lives. She plans on voting in the coming elections and especially appreciates freedom of expression: “I never had that in my country,” she says. The union team did a “great job” helping her through the citizenship process, and she hopes it will continue its work so others can fulfill their dreams.

Ruxandra Westra, a special education assistant and a member of the Oregon School Employees Association, also attended clinics and got her citizenship status in August. She needed the help provided by the AFT’s clinic to jump through all the “hoops” necessary to get there, and as an hourly employee, the $725 application fee was steep, so financial assistance was key.

There were also people who double- and triple-checked Westra’s paperwork to be sure it was all in order. Clinic volunteers were patient and even provided a mock interview so the eventual citizenship interview would be less nerve-wracking. As a former citizen of a communist country—Westra came to the U.S. from Romania in 1989—“any kind of interaction with an authority is scary,” she says.

A community effort

AFT local affiliates have anchored this work in partnership with pro bono immigration attorneys, legal aid networks, immigration advocates and community partners. The work, which started with Texas AFT, has expanded to New York, Oregon, Florida and now California. Other partners have been instrumental in sustaining the movement; they include El Rescate, a California legal aid network; the NALEO Educational Fund; the Salvadoran American Leadership Educational Fund; the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement Los Angeles; the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Los Angeles; and the Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 300. 

The events begin with informational sessions, where dozens of people gather to learn exactly how the citizenship process works, what might be required of them, and whether they are eligible for naturalization or other immigration status assistance. The events are held in familiar places like Spanish-language churches, schools and community centers as well as local union halls. On hand are immigration lawyers, study materials for the citizenship exam, actual applications for citizenship, and referrals to other partner organizations helping with English and civics classes.

After the information sessions, larger crowds gather for a citizenship clinic and community fair, where legal experts are on hand to help individuals begin the application process and advise them on the details of this sometimes-complicated process. Children come for the book giveaways, arts and crafts, food and other activities, making it truly a community event.

It is impossible to count, but we know that over the years the AFT has informed thousands of aspiring citizens and directly assisted hundreds in navigating the complex citizenship process. “We know the naturalization process is daunting, but we are here—presente—to help. This is one of the most groundbreaking civic engagement programs in the entire labor movement,” says AFT Executive Vice President Evelyn DeJesus, who co-chairs the AFL-CIO Executive Council Immigration Committee.

During the last presidential election, voting was a big incentive for some to become citizens. “Citizenship gives me a right that nobody can take away from me,” says Rodrigo Rodriguez, an active member of Education Austin in Austin, Texas, who came to the United States from Mexico as a student. When participants see that he has gone through the process successfully, that he has his own dual citizenship, he says, “They have hope.”

Carreon agrees. “Every time we do an event, I walk away feeling hopeful that we made a difference in somebody’s life.”

[Virginia Myers]