A Solana Beach faith-based nonprofit organization is aiming to help bring people down the path of citizenship.
The North County Immigration and Citizenship Center (NCICC), established in 2013, is a resource for people to learn their rights and offers free immigration attorney clinics, adult courses in English and driver's educational courses. Every Wednesday at the Solana Beach Library, the group also prepares residents to pass the United States Citizen Examination with a 100 percent success rate in passing the exam to date.
The NCICC will host its annual "Hand in Hand" concert, featuring San Diego-based vocalist Daneen Wilburn, on May 20 from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, 120 Stevens Avenue. For tickets and more information, visit www.northcountycitizenship.org.
The group is aiming to raise $68,000 by the end of the event. Funds will go toward expanding their services.
Linda Martinez Haley, executive director of the NCICC, recently discussed the nonprofit's mission and the upcoming fundraising event.
Please describe the organization’s history and mission.
This community has a long history with immigrants. About 30 years ago, our church [Solana Beach Presbyterian Church] started a Spanish ministry. Because of that, this church has always attracted that community. From that was born a tutoring program that now serves more than 240 people every week. From there, we saw that there were more needs. Concerned tutors and volunteers saw this group of parents that were waiting around and needed to learn English. A lot of them were residents who needed to become citizens.
What inspired you to help people with citizenship?
We heard stories about how people had gone to get help and they were defrauded by these so-called 'notaries.' We started to do research and we learned that, sure enough, San Diego County suffers from a lot of folks who prey upon immigrants. The U.S. government began a program to help immigrants at a low cost, and those people are called Department of Justice accredited representatives. We have three DOJ accredited representatives in our organization who can help people pro-bono or low-bono to find a pathway to citizenship. There are 100,000 people, more or less, in San Diego County who are permanent residents, who just haven't become citizens because they don't know how or can't afford it. Now, when they come to us, we give them a loving, hand-holding approach to learn English, study in our Pathways to Citizenship program at the [Solana Beach] library, help them with their paperwork and attend the interview. Literally, from start to finish, we are there for them. In this last year alone, we established 30 new citizens for our community.
How has your program evolved since receiving your accreditation?
We initially were not a recognized agency. We were just kind of an educational service for the community. As soon as we got the accreditation, United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) starting sending people to us. If someone calls them, we're on their list of reliable, registered agencies. We became a legal practice about a year and a half ago. We've had almost 100 clients now, and not a single client has been rejected by the government.
How strong are the demands of gaining citizenship nowadays?
Sometimes it can take 12 months to get an appointment. That's how slowly the government is functioning at this component. The USCIS is so overwhelmed because of all these changes and new demands on the system. What used to take three months now takes 12 months.
Have you seen an increase in the need for your services in the last few years?
There is a climate of fear in our immigrant community. We are called as citizens of this community to welcome strangers. That's part of how we can make a bridge to help folks to come out of the shadows, find the information and inform themselves. What we're doing here is providing these basic services, as well as outreach. We do know-your-rights workshops, we work with Catholic charities, we work with the American Civil Liberties Union ... We'll go anywhere. Most importantly, though, once a month we bring in as many immigration attorneys as I can get at what time for an attorney night. Anyone can show up and talk to these attorneys to find out what remedies they might have. It's really a great way to kind of strike against that fear and get people on the pathway. A lot of folks actually have avenues to citizenship, but they're scared. ... To me, with this particular community, it's a person-to-person community, where their network is from people. I think part of breaking down that culture of fear that is developing is to provide opportunities for information to get out there. I don't think someone should have to pay thousands of dollars to get basic information. It should be free public information.
Do you have any favorite stories of helping people?
One beautiful story that speaks to the power of collaboration and the power of bringing folks together is from our Pathways to Citizenship program. Every week, we're there with about 15 volunteers and about 20 students who are trying to pass the citizenship exam. The University of Maryland's Hillel Center has an immigration field trip that they do once a year and make us part of their field trip. They come and do one night of mock interviews. We had a client who came to us panicked. English was her fifth language. She came to the mock interview. Hebrew is one of her first languages. She walked into the library that night and saw all these Jewish boys and girls and she lit up. She started thanking me and saying I did this for her. They were speaking in Hebrew together, and it was this beautiful moment where they were able to communicate in both languages. By the end, one of the students offered to tutor her by email.
What can you tell us about this fundraiser you're holding? How did you come up with a goal of $68,000?
Last year was the first time we did this fundraiser. It was a surprise how there was so much concern and interest in the community. ... We realized this Pathways to Citizenship was so successful and we could grow it if we had more resources. Solana Beach is one blessed pocket of North County. There are other communities, like Fallbrook, Vista, Oceanside and Encinitas, that could use our help, too. If we can expand our ability to reach those areas, there's no reason why I couldn't take all these services to all these communities in North County.
What will the concert be like?
This venue has acoustics that are unimaginable. Last year, people came up to me afterward and thanked me for bringing music to Solana Beach. This event is important because it's going to give us capacity and bring music to the community. It's going to engage dozens of volunteers. It's going to be a beautiful concert with a silent auction. It will be an opportunity for people to learn about our agency, but mostly just a night of music and celebration of the work that we're doing to put people on the pathway to citizenship.