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A sense of urgency draws immigrants to Houston Citizenship Day

June 24, 2018

Raquel Sanchez, 46, had considered applying for citizenship for a long time, but she was finally pushed to action by the Trump administration’s recent enforcement of a “zero tolerance” policy that has led to the separation of immigrant parents and their children who crossed the border illegally.

She doesn’t want to be forced back to Mexico, a country she considers extremely dangerous. She immigrated to the United States at age 11 and now has children and grandchildren, from whom she couldn’t imagine being separated.

“I’m not going anywhere,” Sanchez said. “My children are here. My grandchildren are here. This is where I belong.”

Like many nervous immigrants, she decided to seek citizenship at U.S. Rep. Gene Green’s 24th annual Citizenship Day event.

Nearly 80 percent of Green’s constituency is Hispanic, and many of them are eligible for citizenship but have not taken the steps to apply, he said. Despite critics, Green said it is important for everyone who is eligible to apply because they pay taxes and should be eligible to vote.

“We’ve always been an inclusive country,” said Green, a Democrat. “All of us came from somewhere.”

Green grew up in the Houston area, knowing many mixed families that included native Texans and others who immigrated.

He said that background inspired his work, including hosting the free, annual event that guides applicants through the complicated process with the help of volunteers, lawyers and even Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Gordon Quan, a former City Council member now with the Houston Volunteer Lawyers, has helped at the event for many years, saying he feels an obligation to the community.

“Citizenship is something everyone should strive to do, but there is a lot of misinformation on how you should apply,” he said.

Some people are wasting their $725 when they apply with a criminal history. In the past, he has played myriad roles, from allaying fears that applicants will get in trouble with immigration authorities to helping a transgender woman change the gender on her application.

Shirley Martinez, immigration case worker for Green, has been helping with the event for 19 years. She said that in the beginning, Green’s event was one of the only that helped with applicants. One year, she said, about 600 people attended, and some even camped out the night before to get a spot. Now, Baker Ripley, Catholic Charities, YMCA International Services and several other nonprofits offer a similar service, putting a dent in the congressman’s crowd.

About 100 people attended Saturday.

The sense of relief people feel after they attend the event is why Charles Flores, a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, has volunteered for the past 23 years. He calls the event a “one-stop shop,” where people can complete their application in a safe, comfortable environment.

José and Maria Guadalupe Zapata came to the event so that Maria could apply for citizenship. They found the process to be smooth. Maria’s husband, José, said they heard about the event from a friend and decided that it was time to get the application done. José was born in Brownsville, but the couple was tired of having to renew Maria’s status as a permanent resident every 10 years.

“There’s the thrill when they can see that they can go through the process and it won’t be a hassle,” said Flores, adding that he supports the event because it provides such a necessary service to people trying to take the next step to be a part of the community.

Flores remembers when a daughter came with her parents to apply for citizenship and she later volunteered because she wanted to give back to the event that had helped her family. But he also remembers a few years ago when the number of attendees dramatically dropped because they were scared away by a rumor that immigration officials would attend.

Flores said many people are eager to apply for citizenship because they are nervous about the Trump administration.

“I don’t know what the current administration is going to do in the next weeks, months, years,” he said.

Similarly, Lupe Torres finds the immigration issues in the news saddening. She said many immigrants come to the U.S. because they can’t stay in their own countries for a variety of reasons, usually because their home country is dangerous. She knows she is lucky that she can walk out of the event at ease with her completed application in her hand.

Torres has been eager to apply for citizenship, but she had to wait to attend the event until she was eligible to apply as a five-year resident. Born in Mexico, Torres moved to the U.S. in 1984 and lived in the country illegally until her son helped her gain residence five years ago. She has been waiting for 34 years to apply. . To her, citizenship is meaningful because she wants to prove that this is her home.

“You’re in this country, and you want to feel like you belong,” Torres said.

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