Jenifer Montanez had no idea she was entitled to U.S. citizenship until last year when she was desperately trying to get government permission to visit her ailing grandparents in Mexico City.
Guadalajara native Florencia Label passed the naturalization test and was sworn in as a U.S. citizen in December at the age of 60 despite having spent most of her life in Mexico and speaking limited English.
Both achievements resulted largely from the assistance provided through the North County Immigration & Citizenship Center. It is located at the Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, 120 Stevens Ave.
“I am very glad this program is available for us and to advise us on which way to go because sometimes we don’t know,” said Montanez, an emergency room nurse at Tri-City Medical Center in Oceanside.
The 37-year-old San Marcos resident had renewed her legal residency card several times after her mother brought her to the U.S. while she was a teenager.
Faced with the urgency of returning to Mexico City to visit her grandparents while they were still alive, she applied for a Mexican passport, while also going to the Solana Beach center for help, based on a friend’s suggestion.
There, she discovered she already qualified for citizenship, since her mother had become naturalized while Jenifer was under 18.
The same day that her passport application was denied, Montanez said, a representative from the Solana Beach site notified her that the U.S. government officially recognized her citizenship.
“I wouldn’t have known,” Montanez said. “It would never have crossed my mind that I was a U.S. citizen. I would not know to go that route and I would not have been recognized as a citizen.”
As a result of her experience, Montanez recommended her brother to go to the center for help in his quest for naturalization.
Label’s path to citizenship was more typical. She married U.S. citizen Wayne Label, who has spent much of his adult life in living in Puerto Vallarta. Florencia was eligible to go through the process of applying for naturalization and going through the interview and civics test required for citizenship.
The Solana Beach resident took English and civics classes at the center to prepare for the day when she would undergo the interview and test. In the latter, immigration officials ask applicants about U.S. government and history from a list of 100 questions, such as “Who was president during World War I?” and “The House of Representatives has how many voting members?”
Thanks to her intensive tutoring at the center, Label was able to pass.
“The people there are always enthusiastic, friendly and helpful,” Florencia said in Spanish, which Wayne translated. “I was happy (the service) was available and excited about getting involved from Day one. Without their help, it would have been very difficult (to become a citizen).”
Wayne Label attributes Florencia’s ability to get through the proceedings in part to the presence of North County Immigration and Citizenship Center Executive Director Linda Martinez Haley.
“She felt a lot more confident going into the interview with Linda being with her,” said Wayne Label.
Haley said Montanez and Florencia Label are among 60 residents who have received or are about to receive citizenship through the center. The site offers adult English instruction, immigration consultations, citizenship tutoring and driver’s education in Spanish.
“We’re pretty excited that soon, we’re going to recognize our 60th new citizen,” Haley said. “Absolutely, we have a 100 percent success rate. We’ve never had anyone turned down for any legal benefit, and I don’t know anybody else in San Diego County who can say that.”
Adding to the center’s credibility is the fact that its programs have been certified by the U.S Department of Justice.
“We’re the only Department of Justice-recognized agency up here,” she said.
Overall, through each of its programs, the center has helped immigrants from 25 countries, Haley said.
From herself on down, the efforts of the center’s seven part-time staff are boosted by numerous volunteers from ages 9 to 84 years old. “It’s possible to have a teenager teaching a 60 year old,” Haley said. “It’s amazing.”
A key aspect of the English as a Second Language classes for adults is that a baby-sitting service is available at the church during class time, enabling parents with children to attend.
The volunteers include tutors who once attended the center as students. “We have people giving it back, which is wonderful,” Haley said. “It’s saying, ‘You’re an American now, and we believe in community service.. We’ve got over 50 volunteers.”
Also, the center is benefiting over the summer from student interns Amanda Llorens and Hope Gerdon from Whitworth University in Washington. “It seems like they’re doing great work, so I’m happy to be a part of it,” Gerdon said.
The center, Haley emphasized, owes its existence to the Rev. Rafael Martinez, a Cuban immigrant who in retirement came to live with his wife in Solana Beach in the 1980s.
Observing the plight of migrant farmworkers eking out a survival in rustic camps throughout North San Diego County, Martinez started providing aid with blankets, food, water, supplies and counseling. He was hailed as El Angel de la Sierra — The Angel of the Hills — for his efforts.
Eventually, that led to the establishment of the Hispanic outreach ministry at Solana Beach Presbyterian.
“He is the root of all this,” Haley said. “It was his vision that we would be doing all this. He was a pioneer in this type of social work.”
The Labels were so impressed by the center that they have dedicated themselves to leading fundraising efforts for the nonprofit. In May, the center held a silent auction with live music, dessert and coffee to raise money for its “Pathway to Citizenship” efforts with the goal of raising $25,000.
“These people are so dedicated,” said Wayne Label, an accountant who authored the book “Accounting for Non-Accountants.
“They’re so understaffed and underpaid, and that’s why I decided to work on raising funds there,” Label said of the center. “They don’t act like they’re half-time employees. They were just always so helpful and so patient. Without them, Florencia would not have passed — no doubt about it.”
For more information, visit www.northcountycitizenship.org