Immigrant groups, Santa Clara County to hold Citizenship Day on Saturday
By Ken McLaughlin

Posted: 03/17/2009 05:54:17 PM PDT

Over the past 13 years, the Santa Clara County Citizenship Collaborative has helped more than 120,000 people through the lengthy and often Byzantine naturalization process to become American citizens.

But this year, selling the idea of citizenship might face its biggest hurdle.

The problem: Citizenship applications now cost a lot of money, while many low-income immigrants are hurting because the economy is in the tank.

"We realize that paying the rent must come first and food is second," and that paying a $675 fee to the federal government might be unaffordable, said Teresa Castellanos, interim director of the Santa Clara County Office of Human Relations.

When the county held its first Citizenship Day in 1996, the fee was $95. But the government has regularly hiked the fee to recapture much of the cost of processing citizenship applications.

So Castellanos' office and a host of nonprofit groups are encouraging immigrants to show up at Saturday's Citizenship & Immigrant Pride Day to at least start thinking about becoming a citizen, even if they decide not to apply for citizenship just yet.

"Just come out and get the information," said Basil Robledo of the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network in San Jose.

According to a national group called Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, approximately 190,000 Santa Clara County residents are eligible to naturalize but have not done so.

At a ews conference Tuesday morning in front of the Center for Employment Training in San Jose, where one of Saturday's citizenship events will be held, some speakers encouraged legal permanent residents to take the next step.

"If you're a green-card holder, I ask you to become a citizen," said Calvin Nguyen, 34, who fled Vietnam in a rickety boat in 1981. "Some of you say you want freedom. But how can you protect freedom if you cannot vote?"

There is one bit of good news this year: There's a new program that gives "scholarships" so low-income people can afford application fees.

If aspiring citizens save $225 over four to 12 months, the San Jose-based Opportunity Fund will pick up the rest of the tab — $450.

The timing is fortuitous, said Angelita Hernandez, the Opportunity Fund's outreach coordinator for the new program, funded by a $1.85 million grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

About 20 people have applied for the program, but the group has enough funding for 500 grants.

To be eligible, immigrants must make 60 percent or less of the area's median income. For a family of four, that's $63,675 a year.

Contact Ken McLaughlin at