‘Get legal?’ Get real

Chico-area residents find heartbreak and frustration while navigating the path toward citizenship

CONSIDERING HER OPTIONS <br>Amber Quiliza (seated) consults with paralegal Amparo Avila-Walker about obtaining citizenship for her 3-year-old daughter. Quiliza is a U.S. citizen, but Samantha (below) does not share her status and lives in the Philippines.

Amber Quiliza (seated) consults with paralegal Amparo Avila-Walker about obtaining citizenship for her 3-year-old daughter. Quiliza is a U.S. citizen, but Samantha (below) does not share her status and lives in the Philippines.

Photo By Brad Brown

Amber Quiliza wants to see her 3-year-old daughter again. Little Samantha is in the Philippines living with her dad, Quiliza’s husband. As she speaks about this, Quiliza begins to falter beneath her sadness, then collects herself. She looks like any local young person full of hope and energy, but as she describes her situation, a certain heaviness comes over her.

Her story is not a happy one; it’s full of false starts and disappointments.

It is a story like those of many others who are “standing in line” for American citizenship—people who often go unseen amid the politics of immigration in this country. Recent bills in Congress, and marches protesting that legislation, have brought illegal immigration to the forefront of national debate. Yet those who say they should just come here legally may not know the arduous process that statement entails.

And they probably aren’t thinking of Amber and Samantha Quiliza.

Amber Quiliza, 27, is strictly American. She looks like a student who just came off a college campus with her stylishly highlighted hair worn long and down, sunglasses used as a headband, a two-piece top and jeans. Her face is warm and round; her demeanor is direct and curious.

She was born in San Pedro, Calif., and moved to the Philippines when she was 14. There she got married and had three boys—also U.S. citizens, by virtue of her own status.

She yearned to return to America with her family. In following years, she made a few trips back and forth to establish residency and begin the needed paperwork to move her family over.

Part of citizenship law provides that a parent must prove five years of U.S. residency for the child to be born an American citizen. With her boys, born when she was a teen, that was easy to do: She had school records. Her daughter, on the other hand, missed her own citizenship because the “clock” is set back to zero for parents at age 18, and Quiliza could not prove the five years’ recent residency in the U.S. when Samantha was born. She came up seven months short.

Quiliza is living in Chico with her boys, who she says enjoy school and are doing very well. She has worked maintenance and housekeeping jobs since moving back to America in February 2005. She also takes care of her ailing mother ("In our culture,” she said, “we don’t leave our parents") as well as her 17-year-old sister. Quiliza is sometimes up at 4:30 in the morning.

“I learned not to take life for granted,” she said. “I had a hard life in the Philippines; I had to wash clothes by hand and cook on an open fire.”

She added: “I’m used to taking care of my kids; nowadays they need you more. Right now I’m just working a lot. I don’t go out; I just get my work done.”

Samantha Quiliza

Courtesy Of Amber Quiliza

Hard work is not enough, though, since the United States Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS—the old “INS") requires a $32,000 income for a family the size of Quiliza’s to immigrate legally. In lieu of that income, the government will accept the “sponsorship” of another U.S. citizen who will vouch for the family. Back in 1999, when Quiliza was here, her aunt had been such a sponsor, until the aunt made a mistake on the affidavit of support and the petition failed. The aunt decided not to continue the support.

“She did it all wrong,” Quiliza lamented. “I gave up. I said, ‘I can’t handle this!’ I had three kids and was pregnant [with a fourth son]; I was away from my husband.”

She returned to the Philippines, making a third jaunt across the Pacific, only to return again last year.

She has many worries—about making enough money, about caring for her mom and teenaged sister, about bringing the boys up right, and about finding a sponsor so her daughter and husband can rejoin the family.

“I was crying one time,” she said, tears welling again, “and my son said, ‘We’ll help you!’ They miss their sister.”

United States Census Bureau figures show that, from 2000 through June 2005, the non-native-born population in Butte County has increased at a rate of 475 people a year—almost one quarter of the county’s population growth for that period. Mexico, Laos and Cambodia are the countries of origin for most of Butte County’s estimated 18,000 foreign-born residents.

Of the approximately 5,000 residents from Laos and Cambodia, about half are not yet citizens, reports Seng S. Yang, program coordinator of the Hmong Cultural Center of Butte County. The center helped 191 Hmong residents become citizens last year, through training in civics and English, helping with the completion of USCIS forms, and even driving the applicants to their Sacramento interviews and tests.

Passing the tests for citizenship “depends on how well you prepare and how good your English is,” Yang said. “If they really prepare, then they will be able to pass.” (See a sampling of quiz questions on page 19.)

The citizenship application fee is $340 (the cost doubled in 2004). For that, the applicant can take the test up to three times without having to reapply.

“Lots of people push them to perform,” Yang commends. “The first time [taking the test] a really low percent will pass … 10 percent.” Among younger Hmong residents who have gone to school here, he said, about half will succeed on the initial testing.

The road to citizenship is one the Hmong community is dedicated to traveling. As Yang points out, “We don’t have a country to go back to; this is our country.”

Margarito Cardenas, 42, is an almond worker who has been a part of the Durham community for 18 years. His handsome, weathered face displays the proud effort of rural farming. He doffs his cowboy hat as he speaks.

SKEPTICAL <br>Long-time Durham resident Margarito Cardenas, victimized by unscrupulous application assistance previously, listens cautiously as he is told about the process to legalize his children.

Granted amnesty during the Reagan presidency, he is a permanent legal resident working on his citizenship and that of his seven children. They range in age from 5 to 20, the younger five attending Chico schools; the adult children are here as well, and he is working to get them work permits.

Cardenas intends to have his family whole, legal and able to visit relatives in Mexico. “I want to have my children close,” he said. “I want to do this the good way, not ‘across the desert.’ “

This is a reference not merely to illegal immigration, but also to something Cardenas knows personally: services who say they can help with citizenship paperwork but are either incompetent or frauds.

Initially he contacted a paper preparer he had heard about through friends; he said she took his money and did not do the work. In addition to the fees charged by the preparer, he also had to pay substantial medical costs for exams and blood tests. He faces $5,000 or more in fines from the USCIS. Besides that, he lost his “place in line” and may have to wait as long as seven years to have documents processed for his children.

Amparo Avila-Walker, owner of the Chico-based document preparation firm Avila Services, said Cardenas is not an isolated victim—"There are a lot of cases like that.”

Though skeptical at first of going to another business for application help, Cardenas is satisfied with the assistance he is now getting. “I made the big step [to restart the application process] with my fingerprinting in Sacramento,” he said. “The process is going on.”

Cardenas now employs Avila Services. Avila-Walker worked for years in the Superior Court system in Butte County after coming out of the Chico State paralegal program in the early 1990s. Five years ago, she began her own business with the help of the California Human Development Corp.

“I actually see the families,” she said. “I work with the [permanent residents], and I also do a lot of education on the immigration system for [undocumented residents]. They are the hardest-working and most honest people I’ve met.”

She added: “I see all this discussion about immigration, and I’m going, ‘Where is the human side?’ “

Stefan Nornholm, 23, is tall with long hair, looks like a football player (he was one, in high school), has a quick smile and quick wit, and lives in Chico. He originally moved from his native Sweden to Illinois at 15. He decided to come to the U.S. on short notice when his dad met a woman on the Internet.

“I had to very quickly make up my mind,” Nornholm recalled. “I don’t know why [I chose to come], something was just telling me to. … When I got here I saw the big signs [billboards] on the road and was amazed—'I’m really here!’ “

Being a teenaged foreign student unable to speak the language was a challenge, but he rose to it: “I did a lot better here than in Sweden. I dedicated myself more to it.” He made the football team for his Illinois high school at offensive/defensive tackle and achieved National Honor Society status.

HIGHER LEARNING <br>Community Action Volunteers in Education, a program from Chico State’s Associated Students, holds English and citizenship classes throughout the academic year.

Courtesy Of Chico Housing Improvement Program

Even with these accomplishments, moving around left Nornholm two classes short of his high school diploma. He plans to get his diploma when life settles down. Right now he is awaiting the reply on papers he has filed toward his citizenship, dealing with life as a newlywed, and managing the pressures of non-citizen finances.

“I’m excited about [the citizenship process],” he said, “but at the same time it is a lot of stress on her [his wife, Danna]. It costs a lot of money for exams and blood tests, and I don’t have many rights. Your life is on hold because you can’t do anything.”

His wife—a U.S.-born American citizen—has inspired him to become a citizen and made him more optimistic about the process: “Before I was with her I said, ‘What’s the point?’ After I met her, all of a sudden I’m with somebody now and I have a purpose. … I want to make a life with her.”

This means being able to vote, feeling secure about staying in the country and being able to travel with a U.S. passport.

Sharon Rummery, northwest regional communications manager for the USCIS, echoes the benefits of citizenship but refrains from decrying any lapses in process or politics. “We naturalize 800 to 900 people a month [in California]. … There were 199 in Sacramento yesterday [May 26],” she said. “We’re the bringers of dreams-come-true.”

Rummery describes a system that is streamlined and user-friendly, in which applicants can fill out forms online, choose times and dates for their appointments and interviews, and not have to wait in long lines.

“Things are much easier now,” she said. “The catalyst was the breakup of the old INS.” Enforcement duties went to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency, while legal status changes were folded into the Department of Homeland Security.

Rummery is circumspect when she describes the current climate toward immigration—"We don’t take the law personally, we just take it seriously"—and what any new legislation might include, “but nobody is talking about changing the path to citizenship.”

That path, however tough, does have some leeway. A special section of immigration law allows for special consideration for victims of domestic violence.

Dalia Nungaray, 28, is a new permanent resident legally living in Willows. She moved here from Mexico, married to a quite older man, when she was only 14. He beat her, she says, so she divorced him. She is now remarried and has three daughters and a son.

She has had to tell her story to others before: the police, USCIS, those who helped her with her forms. It was embarrassing and against her nature and her culture to have to describe to strangers the abuse she took at the hands of her ex-husband. Nungaray is a subtle person—a woman you might see but not really notice at the supermarket or post office.

She wears her hair tightly about her head; dressed formally, even in warm weather in a gray-brown dress, watch, subtle broach and small earrings, she conveys utility without pretension. She seems older than she is, with seriousness and understanding behind her strong, dark eyes.

COVETED CARD <br>Dalia Nungaray shows off the proof of her new status as a legal permanent resident.

Photo By Brad Brown

Nungaray is working now, and she wants to become a citizen, buy a house, and help her husband, Jose Luis Calzado (a native of Mexico), in his application for citizenship.

“A lot of women are still living the way I was [undocumented, in abusive situations],” she said, “and they don’t have to live like that. It is better to be a U.S. citizen—there are more options out there, more opportunities.”

Hard work is what it takes to hold down a job, raise a family and study English and U.S. history for two hours after dinner four times a week.

That’s just what 25 to 40 Chico residents do each semester, said Ann Schwab, of Community Action Volunteers in Education (CAVE), which offers free 10-week language and civics tutoring to individuals or groups.

Christina Baldarelli taught one of those classes. She is a Chico State senior, double-majoring in studio art and Spanish, who tutored for CAVE last semester. She nearly jumps out of her seat with praise for the program and her students.

“I loved it,” she enthused. “It was the most amazing program. Honestly, few people know about this. … It’s so valuable.”

Baldarelli’s classes of men and women ranged in age from 23 to 50. Some of her students had been in the country for only three months and others for up to 11 years. Some were stay-at-home parents; most worked. Literacy in English and even their native languages varied.

What they all had in common was their drive: “Those would be the only two hours of their day [they could spare]. Some would bring kids that they were babysitting; some would have to rush off to work for a while.”

There is little help elsewhere for residents and their families when it comes to learning the ins and outs of the history, government and laws of this country—knowledge that is required for U.S. citizenship.

At one time, Butte College had a program that provided structured citizenship lessons designed specifically to prepare students for the “100 questions,” as they are known. Unfortunately, the college cancelled the offerings about four years ago due to low enrollment, reported Dean of Transfer and General Education Samia Yaqub.

“In this area, you’d think it’s not a problem [getting citizenship students],” she asserted. “In the ‘90s we had [citizenship] classes and they were pretty healthy. We had a lot of interest, and since the class was non-credit, it wasn’t a cost issue. Then Props 187 and 227 passed. That really impacted our numbers.”

Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative, would have denied social services to illegal immigrants but got overturned in federal court. Proposition 227, passed in 1998, curtailed bilingual instruction in public schools.

As for the future of the course, Yaqub said, “if we get a strong demand, we will offer it.”

Amber Quiliza faces an uncertain future. Her case has stalled. She cannot find a sponsor for her family, someone whose help would enable her husband to bring their daughter to Chico. With a sponsor, he and Samantha could come to the U.S. within six months. Quiliza then would file an N-600 form to request citizenship for Samantha based on her citizen-mother status; her husband, meanwhile, could have full citizenship within three years.

She is frustrated with the process, yet reflective, too. When asked what she would like to say about the immigration and citizenship issue, Quiliza is quick to respond.

“I’d like to voice this out: It affects so many people; it’s the heart that is affected most in the people. My husband breaks down when I call him…. He tells me all the new things [Samantha] is doing, and I’m not there to be with her.”

Amber subdued her tears and continues: “I’m doing this so my children can have a future.”

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