Garden Grove, Calif. — Forty years ago, Alba Ramiro crossed the border to the United States, leaving Guadalajara, Mexico, to begin a new life in Southern California. An eager 13-year-old, she lived with her mother and sister in Orange County, enrolled in public school and joined a Catholic parish, with dreams of one day working for the government.
Over the years, volunteers from Catholic Charities at Our Lady of Guadalupe in La Habra guided Ramiro through the arduous process of becoming an American citizen, a goal she gleefully achieved in 1987 after more than a decade in the U.S.
In many ways, she says, it was one the best days of her life.
Now, Ramiro, 53, wants to return the favor. She's one of hundreds of California Catholics taking part in an ambitious effort across immigrant-rich Southern California to naturalize hundreds of thousands of the estimated 2.5 million people in the Golden State who are permanent residents but lack citizenship.
Against a backdrop of polarizing political rhetoric and stalled federal immigration legislation, Catholic parishes from Los Angeles to San Diego -- the most immigrant-rich part of the most immigrant-populated American state -- are heeding Pope Francis' call to treat migrants with "charity and cooperation" and make their lives "more humane."
"People don't realize that as a permanent resident you are still deportable. Some people don't speak perfect English to fill out citizenship paperwork, other people can't afford the fees, others are confused by the process," said Ramiro, a parish leader at Our Lady of Guadalupe. Ramiro joined an Immigration Summit Feb. 27 at Orange County's Christ Cathedral that featured more than 100 priests, bishops and churchgoers from 40 parishes across the Los Angeles archdiocese and the San Bernardino, Orange and San Diego dioceses.
"While we wait for the laws to change, here is something we can do right now to help people," said Ramiro, who works as a volunteer coordinator for Catholic Charities of Orange County.
The plan: form teams across the hundreds of parishes in the four dioceses that will provide such assistance as holding workshops with immigration lawyers, offering civics classes to prepare for the citizenship test, and helping immigrants raise funds to foot the typical $680-per-person naturalization application fee. Catholic Charities, which has taken on immigration cases for many years, will also assist helping eligible applicants get fee waivers.
"People are likely to trust their local church, so we want to capitalize on that trust to do something to everyone's benefit," said Msgr. Richard Martini, pastor at St. Joseph Church in Carpinteria. The 2,000-family parish, like many in Southern California, will host a training in March to recruit churchgoers to reach out via friends and family to immigrants who hold green cards.
"We're trying to put people in a position where they can have a voice and count. One of the advantages of gaining citizenship is that you are able to vote," said Martini, who added that the effort includes voter registration.
At the Feb. 28 summit, immigrants shared testimonies of their journeys to the U.S. to becoming naturalized while flyers scattered at dozens of tables in the cathedral's event hall described the many benefits of the process, including:
- Obtaining citizenship for minor children;
- Petitioning to bring family members to the U.S.;
- Traveling freely with a U.S. passport;
- Becoming eligible for federal jobs and public services;
- Potential dual citizenship.
While the California push follows a call from the pope, the outreach isn't limited to Catholics. The dioceses are initially targeting the 1.5 million people who are eligible for citizenship in Southern California, a number that includes non-Catholics and was culled from data from the New York-based Center for Migration Studies.
"Politicians in both parties have let us down and ignored our people's suffering for their own agendas. This is a moral failure and a human tragedy," Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez said at the summit.
Citing the church's push last year to help immigrants obtain driver's licenses, Gomez said Catholics could now make a "real difference in the lives of hundreds of thousands of people." (A California law that allows undocumented immigrants to get driver's licenses went into effect in 2015.)
While the effort is focused on Southern California, where the bulk of immigrants in California live, dioceses are also teaming up with the Sacramento-based California Catholic Conference, said Ned Dolejsi, conference executive director.
"We work with Catholic Charities of California and the immigrant rights advocates to lobby for funding primarily," Dolejsi said in an email. The California legislature has established a $15 million fund for nonprofits who want to provide outreach, legal and education services to those eligible for citizenship. Last year, the federal government also doled out $10 million in grants to organizations helping immigrants become citizens.
Martini, the priest whose Carpinteria parish is taking part in the naturalization and voter drive, admitted funding could be an issue for eligible permanent residents.
"Cost is one of those bridges we have not crossed yet. There are exemptions, of course, to fees for some people," he said. "But finances shouldn't stop us from trying."
California isn't the only place where the church's role in promoting naturalization is ramping up. Dioceses from Galveston-Houston to Miami have teamed with legal groups in recent years for citizenship drives.
In Texas, Houston-area Catholics regularly host citizenship workshops through Catholic Charities, similar to courses Catholic Charities offers in dioceses across the country.
In the Miami-Fort Lauderdale area -- home to 240,000 permanent residents who are eligible for citizenship -- the archdiocese teamed with local nonprofits in February to launch Citizen 1-2-3, an outreach program that includes online and text-message guides, a phone hotline, and lawyers who are available to talk applicants through the naturalization process.
"They think they don't know enough U.S. history, they think they don't speak English clearly enough, they think they don't have the money to process their papers," Miami Archbishop Thomas Wenski, who was born to Polish immigrants, said during the program's launch at Miami International Airport.
Church and community groups can help those seeking citizenship "overcome the hurdles that might be before them and facilitate their becoming a U.S. citizen because becoming a citizen is a life-changing event," Wenski said.
Still, bishops have acknowledged, naturalization will only help immigrants residing in the U.S. with documentation. For the 11.3 million immigrants who are undocumented, the hurdles are bigger.
"I'm getting more and more nervous about our brothers and sisters who are immigrants, especially those without documents," Auxiliary Bishop David O'Connell of Los Angeles said Feb. 28. Echoing the pope's recent comments about Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump's proposal to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, he said, "We are not people who are building walls. We are people who are focused on building bridges."
[Jaweed Kaleem is a freelance writer covering religion, politics, technology and social issues. Previously, he was the senior religion reporter for The Huffington Post and a religion and general assignment writer for the Miami Herald.]