Mariana Sanchez could not speak English when she came to the United States from Ecuador. She worked three jobs to support her two sons, while her American husband, who was unemployed, abused her and spent the family’s savings on a sports car. When he failed to petition the government for Sanchez’s green card, she and her two children unknowingly became undocumented. Then, one night, he went out to buy bread and never returned home. Alone in Houston with no friends, and no money, Sanchez found a room in a shelter for her children and herself and worked at a dry cleaning business, as a maid at a hotel, and cleaning houses. When that wasn’t enough, she fed her family with discarded food from a local grocery store. Slowly, she taught herself English from soap operas and eventually got a job at the YMCA helping other victims of domestic violence. Today, with Thomas Burdette—her husband of three years—she runs the organization they founded, Bonding Against Adversity, teaching immigrants English and civics and helping them apply for citizenship.
On a recent Saturday morning in Dallas, Sanchez and Burdette were up before 7 a.m., driving their pickup truck along the construction-riddled roads leading from downtown Dallas to the Santa Clara Regional Community Center for a “mega-workshop.” There they joined legal service providers and volunteers from around the country to help hundreds of immigrants apply for citizenship. This diverse group was brought together under the New Americans Campaign, a national movement launched in 2011 by the Immigrant Legal Resource Center.
While most of the one hundred-plus groups in the campaign hold naturalization workshops throughout the year, the so-called “mega-workshop,” like Texas itself, would be much larger. The center’s gymnasium serves as a staging ground—the bleachers filled with those waiting to register. From there, the immigrants are prescreened to ensure they are eligible to apply, and are then moved on to other stations throughout the compound where they can meet with lawyers, make copies of their documents, use a TurboTax-like program to fill out the application on their own, or receive one-on-one help completing the forms from naturalization experts. Finally, a lawyer reviews all their paperwork before they submit everything to Citizenship and Immigration Services. In all, more than sixty staff and volunteers are helping out at the event.
A line is already forming outside the community center shortly before 8 a.m. when Sanchez and Burdette arrive. Five hundred men, women, and children, predominantly from Central and South America, have pre-registered for the workshop—a tiny fraction of the 8.8 million green card holders in the U.S. who are eligible to apply. By 9:30 a.m. a line of more than 100 immigrants wraps around the parking lot. Parents with small children in tow search out pockets of shade under small trees where they fill out workshop forms.
Back inside, Thomas Burdette and Mariana Sanchez sit together at a table confirming the eligibility of workshop attendees before they begin filling out the 21-page naturalization application form. “How many trips have you taken outside of the country?” Burdette asks a man from El Salvador. The man applied for citizenship several years ago but was denied because his English was not fluent. Burdette tallies the visa stamps in the man’s passport to determine the number of trips he has taken and then puts a green sticker on his registration form, waving him on to the next station. “His English is good, he’ll do fine” Burdette assures me in his thick Texas drawl.
Sanchez, who was eventually granted legal status through a law that protects victims of domestic abuse, became a citizen, along with her two sons, in 2011. Her own experience inspired her to help others. “I wonder how many people here have horrible stories worse than ours,” she says. Burdette, who met Sanchez back in 2005 when he was a customer at the dry cleaning business where she worked, shares her passion and together they co-founded Bonding Against Adversity five years ago.
Many of those helping out at the workshop know the obstacles to achieving citizenship all too well. Sonia Robles, a case manager with Catholic Charities of Dallas, came from Mexico without a visa in 1972. A path to legal status and citizenship opened up for her when President Reagan signed the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Having witnessed friends and others lose their green cards and face deportation, Robles was determined to become a citizen. “I love the United States. I want to live here for the rest of my life,” she says. The uncertainty and risk that she experienced as an undocumented immigrant, and even as a green card holder, inspires her to help others. “I want them to have security and good jobs.”
Luis Arango Petrocchi, one of the workshop organizers and the citizenship program manager for Catholic Charities of Dallas, is overseeing logistics for the workshop and has become the go-to staff member for volunteers with questions big and small. By 11 a.m. nearly 300 people have arrived and Petrocchi is struggling to rebalance his army of volunteers and staff members to make sure the process moves as smoothly as possible. “It’s crazy” he tells me as he runs off to an adjoining building looking for more space to set up lawyers who will do a final check of each application.
Nubia Torres, microphone in hand, is running crowd control in the gymnasium, where the hundreds of aspiring Americans wait to receive help with their applications. Torres is the site manager for immigration and legal services at the local Catholic Charities office, a job she took on after walking away from three years of medical school and moving to Arkansas to work as a case manager at Catholic Charities of Little Rock. Explaining her previous interest in medicine and her dramatic career change, Torres says, “I always wanted to help people.” Her parents, who were less than thrilled with her decision, are both Mexican immigrants, and Torres has always had a personal interest in issues affecting immigrant families.
The intricate and bureaucratic details of becoming a citizen can sometimes distract from the personal stories that drive men, women, and children from all over the world to take on the responsibility and opportunity of becoming an American citizen. The paperwork, the documents, the civics and English tests, and the financial costs can all be very overwhelming. As it did for so many previous waves of newcomers, citizenship represents the possibility to give one’s children a better life. During a brief break, Mariana Sanchez reflects on why she took the final step and naturalized, “the best part for me is to give my children the opportunity to have better work and better opportunities.”