Local residents complete their long journey to citizenship

Jesus Carranco has an old battered wallet with a very valuable item in it: his green card. He’s been a permanent resident since 1988, the final year of U.S. amnesty for farm workers. The card is in pristine condition, preserved inside a special envelope. But he won’t be needing it anymore, because he just became a U.S. citizen. He passed his naturalization interview and test in June and made it official at a swearing-in ceremony last week.

“My first goal was to learn English, and then something changed in me and I said, no. I’m going to become a citizen first,” says Carranco, a matter-of-fact 61-year-old farm worker whose deeply tanned forearms bespeak decades behind the wheel of a tractor and in the field, planting, irrigating and harvesting vegetables. Carranco had surgery to repair his left knee last November, and he walks with a pronounced limp.

Jesus Carranco at Puente in the week after he earned his U.S. citizenship.

Jesus Carranco at Puente in the week after he earned his U.S. citizenship.

If you want to know what Mexican immigrants are capable of, consider that Carranco, whose schooling ended when he dropped out of the fifth grade, not only took the initiative to apply for citizenship through Puente, but studied for the test entirely on his own – memorizing 100 questions and answers with remarkable acuity.

“All day long I would be reading these questions to myself, four or five times a day,” he says. “I would lay in bed in the middle of the night and think about the questions.

I would wake up, make breakfast and have the questions with me while I cooked.”

Then there’s Gabriela (‘Gaby’) Flores, a 23-year-old student whose sister has Down Syndrome. Flores, who has been a green card holder for five years, decided that being a citizen would help her take care of her sister once she turns 18, through a family conservatorship. “She’s going to need someone to be her guardian, and my mom and my dad can do it now – but what happens after that?” she says.

Like Carranco, Flores turned to Puente to help her obtain, fill out and file her citizenship papers. At Puente, she learned that she qualified for a fee waiver – it normally costs $680 to apply for citizenship. But she paid nothing, and Puente filed her papers for free. She easily passed her written and naturalization tests, and made her official debut as a newly-minted citizen in May.

What’s the most thrilling part of being an American so far? “I’m very excited for jury duty. I can’t wait for that phone call,” she giggles.

Flores also finds herself paying closer attention to local and national politics now. She watches the news at night. “This time I know my vote counts to elect the next President,” she says.

At a time when some choose to cast aspersions on an entire class of immigrants from Mexico, Carranco and Flores represent the best kind of new American. For six years, Puente has provided immigration services to the South Coast community free of charge. It has processed 21 applications for citizenship. Most applicants also need help to prepare them for the naturalization test, so Puente connects them with members of the community who tutor them free of charge – sometimes for up to a year. Tutor and student inevitably become close and even end up going to the swearing-in ceremony together.

“The reason Puente started doing legal services is we had a family who was going to be deported, and by the father becoming a citizen, the family was able to file for Adjustment of Status here,” says Rita Mancera, Deputy Executive Director of Puente.

Thanks to support from the Grove Foundation over the years, Puente has helped people of all ages make the citizenship transition – from 18-year-olds to participants in their 70s. Mancera, who herself became a U.S. citizen three years ago, tries to get green card holders to apply for citizenship rather than pay $450 to renew every 10 years. Holding a green card limits the number of days one can spend outside the U.S., among other restrictions. She’s also been known to persuade young people with green cards to apply as soon as they turn 18 because Puente makes it so easy for them.

“If we weren’t here to help them with the process, they would have to find an attorney to represent them,” she says. “Often the perceived costs deter potential citizens from moving forward.”

Now Puente’s immigration services extend vastly beyond citizenship services. On June 3, Puente obtained Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition, and Mancera received legal worker accreditation to assist participants with the immigration legal process. Puente plans to file accreditation for several other Puente staff members, which entails more than 40 hours of workshop training they completed early this year.

In the past, Puente would have an outside attorney review participants’ green card, visa and citizenship applications. The same went for applications under DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. But now Puente can work autonomously.

“We are allowed to assist community members with their immigration issues without relying solely on attorneys,” explains Mancera. “The one exception is we are not allowed to go to court and present participants’ cases there. That said, we will continue to rely on the pro bono attorneys that assist Puente with our immigration-related work.”

Puente’s new status will be an enormous boon to the dozens of adults expected to apply for deferred deportation status and work permits under DAPA – provided the federal program survives its current legal challenge.

“It’s a tremendous asset for the community,” says Jack Holmgren, California Legalization Director of the Catholic Legal Immigration Network. Holmgren first approached Puente about pursuing BIA recognition, and helped guide staff members through the training and accreditation process his nonprofit provides.

“The South Coast is an out-of-the way place, and that geographic separation means people don’t get the services they need from trusted providers,” he adds. “Now Puente will be the trusted provider in the heart of the community for all their immigration needs.”

Puente’s BIA training was made possible through a generous grant from the San Francisco Foundation. Subsequent training is being supported by a grant from the Grove Foundation.

People have different reasons for wanting to be a U.S. citizen: some ideological, some practical. Carranco will retire soon, and hopes to spend more time in Mexico with the wife and children he misses so much. Some of them have petitioned the U.S. government for a green card, and have waited years for an answer; perhaps their father’s new citizenship status will speed things up.

“I like that feeling that I could help my family,” he says.

Three-year milestone finds DACA youth thriving at school and work

Three years ago, Danna Gonzalez barely cared about graduating from high school. “Good grades weren’t my priority because I didn’t think I was going to go off to college,” she says. But earlier this month, the petite, long-haired daughter of a truck driver not only graduated, she did so glowing with the knowledge that she was college-bound. “I’m so excited because I can actually do something with life, like get an education. I can actually be what I want to become.” She crossed the stage in cap and gown, grasping not just a diploma but four community scholarships, including one from Puente, which she will apply toward her college education.

Gonzales also got a class award for community service, which includes her many hours of service as a Puente volunteer. Prior to graduation, she received seven other school awards for all the hard work she did to turn her grades around and pass her classes.

The 18-year-old says she’s become a different person since she applied for a DACA permit three years ago. (DACA stands for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal initiative that since 2012 has awarded work permits to roughly 100,000 previously undocumented residents who were brought to the U.S. as children.) Although DACA is not a path to citizenship, it awards qualified applicants a legitimate Social Security number and ID papers that can be used to apply for a driver’s license and find work. (California subsequently passed a law, AB60, which makes driver’s licenses available to all Californians regardless of their immigration status). In California and a few other states, DACA also qualifies students for certain kinds of college financial aid.

The results are often transformative: in a 2014 study of DACA recipients, a majority of those surveyed were able to get a new job, open their first bank account and obtain a driver’s license.

Danna Gonzalez, Ana Barron and Yessenia Perez are three of 23 local youth who have received their work authorization since Puente started processing DACA applications for free in 2012. That little piece of paper marked a milestone for many youth in the South Coast community. Three years on, 13 of them have already renewed the two-year permit for another two years. They are looking ahead to exciting fields of study and full-fledged careers they never allowed themselves to dream of.

In Gonzalez’s case, that dream entails attending Cabrillo Community College in Santa Cruz, where she will debut as a student this fall. Following two years of prerequisites, she will enter a training program to become a dental hygienist. “I’m excited but I’m scared,” she admits with a laugh. “In Pescadero it’s a small school, so we have a lot of support from the teachers. At Cabrillo, they won’t care if I attend school or not.”

Ana Barron is still adjusting to life as a student at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, a campus she never thought she would set foot on. The fresh-faced nursing student easily fits in among her community college peers, who might never guess she’s 26 and has a 6-year-old at home.

Ana Barron and her son.

Ana Barron and her son.

Barron came to the U.S. from Mexico at 14, and had her son, Maximiliano, at 19. For most DACA recipients, having work authorization mainly affects one person’s future – their own. For Barron, DACA ensures, at least temporarily, that she is guaranteed a reprieve from ever being deported to Mexico and separated from her American-born son. It also means she can work toward a degree that will help her get a high-paying job, lifting the prospects of her small family.

Barron enrolled at Foothill with her heart set on entering the medical field – she’ll choose between nursing, radiology or respiratory therapy, although nursing is her top choice. “I like talking to people and helping them,” she says, simply. As a part time student and a full-time mom who also works as a waitress in Pescadero, Barron knows it’s going to take her several years to get enough credits to transfer to San Jose State and complete her degree. It’s complicated and expensive. “But as long as I feel good about it and don’t give up, I think I can do it,” she says.

Barron loved high school, but her pregnancy prevented her from going to college. After her son was born, there didn’t seem to be much of a point – until she got a personal phone call from Rita Mancera, Deputy Executive Director of Puente, inviting her to apply for DACA. Suddenly she saw a future for herself outside of her waitress job. “It’s wonderful to be able to move from one place to another without worry,” she says today. “It’s a good beginning, because more of the programs will probably ask me for a Social Security number later on when I try to apply.”

Barron’s unique situation as a parent who happens to qualify for DACA also makes a strong case for DAPA, Presient Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, an executive order providing temporary protection from deportation and a work permit. The program is in limbo as the federal government readies for a legal showdown, and so are hundreds of Pescadero residents who might benefit. Puente has spent considerable staff time and resources moving forward to prepare for DAPA, and recently received Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition, which will allow staff to process most DAPA applications in-house.

“We know children whose parents do not have work authorization. They’re always on edge,” says Mancera. “When parents have a work permit, they aren’t worried about their jobs. If they get their hours cut back, they can apply somewhere else as well.”

Children without papers also experience fear, insecurity and a sense of self-rejection; Mancera sees it all the time.

Generous funding for Puente’s DACA efforts comes from the Grove Foundation of Los Altos, and the foundation’s support has been changing lives.

“When the youth are in school, I see an immediate difference. There are more doors open in their academic futures,” says Mancera. “For people who are out of school already, the work opportunities suddenly just change.”

That was never truer than for Yessenia Perez. She is studying for a teaching credential but already has a job she adores, working at a daycare where she cares for 1-year-olds. The confident 23-year-old married her college sweetheart last month and moved to Redwood City from Pescadero. After several years of staffing Puente’s children’s programs, and then working as a teacher’s aide at Pescadero Elementary, Perez knew she wanted to work with young children.

When DACA came along, Perez was literally first in line at Puente with her documents in order, ready to apply. “I knew DACA was going to change my life. That it was going to help me to have my driver’s license instead of waiting for rides from friends,” she says today. “Later on I realized I could get the job that I wanted in the place that I wanted.”

Yessenia with her work permit.

But she didn’t know it would happen so quickly. A friend working at a private daycare and preschool in San Mateo recommended Perez for a post there. She applied for the job, but went to the first interview with some trepidation – she knew she’d have to explain that she only had a 2-year work permit, and that the interview process would probably be a slog. Instead, she was hired on the spot.

“I thought, thank god I have the DACA permit. If I didn’t have that, it would have held me back,” she says.

Three years into her stint at Cañada College, Perez has earned a certificate in early childhood development and is halfway toward her goal of an associate degree. Eventually she will transfer to a four-year college and enter a teaching program.

One of the biggest pleasures of Perez’s job is the fact that she can be honest with her employers about her work status. “At the beginning, I was waiting for them to ask me questions,” she says. But it turns out they were more interested in her skills. “They were fine with it. They even said, ‘If you ever need a letter from us just let us know.’ I was amazed.”

The federal government charges $465 for each DACA application—funds most young people don’t have. Your support helps offset costs for the application and college, as well as fuels Puente’s life-changing work with students like Danna, Ana, Yessenia, and countless others.

Please donate today.


Puente readies families for DAPA, despite government delays

Lina Correal thinks about it all the time: how fun it would be to work behind the cash register of a retailer, to make change for customers, stock shelves, to do inventory. But she would need a work permit, and that’s something only the government can decide.

In fact, Correal (whose name has been changed) could have bought a fraudulent Social Security number and used it to find work. It would have helped her feed her three children, who subsist on the wages her husband makes driving  for a South Coast farm. But it would not have been an honest choice. The idea of having an employer ask for her papers is too frightening. Better to avoid it altogether.

“It’s scary for me to present my identity,” she says. “I know it’s not good. It’s not me.”

What frightens her even more is the prospect of being separated from her children and deported to Mexico for some minor infraction or simply on the basis of her immigration violation, as are thousands in the U.S. today.

The only thing that could give Correal some relief is DAPA, President Obama’s Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program, an executive order providing temporary protection from deportation and a work permit.

Unfortunately, Correal, her husband and 3.7 million other unlawful immigrants are trapped in a high-stakes legal showdown playing out in a federal court in Texas. The judge has refused to lift an injunction on Obama’s executive order. About half the country, or 26 states, have joined the case, which is likely to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, so the prospect of immigration reform is more uncertain than ever.

Nevertheless, “the message has been about hope,” says Rita Mancera, Deputy Executive Director of Puente. “The last amnesty was in 1986, so we hope something is going to happen to give relief to people who have worked here for many years.”

President Obama’s immigration announcement last November went off like a starting gun at Puente’s offices. Puente estimates that over 120 local parents have a son or daughter born in the U.S. and could therefore qualify for DAPA, although the number is very likely much higher.


Within weeks of the announcement, Puente staff members had personally called many people in the community with information about DAPA, designed a flyer, and scheduled a community information session with immigration attorneys.

Since then, six staff members have collectively logged 240 hours of training on immigration law through the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, which will help them screen qualified applicants (and spot red flags, such as anyone with a criminal record).

Puente itself will shortly obtain Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA) agency recognition, and Mancera is on track to receive legal worker accreditation to work with program participants on the government’s behalf.

“The government may not be ready, but we are. We could start tomorrow,” says Kerry Lobel, Executive Director of Puente.

After years of living in the shadows, parents like Correal, a bubbly woman in her late 40s, must now prove to the government that they were here on January 1, 2010 and every month thereafter. Correal’s husband, Luis, has his name on most of the bills, rental agreements and other documents pertaining to their home and family.

On the other hand, Correal doesn’t have much of a work history or pay stubs to show for it, other than some under-the-table work as a babysitter for a few years. It’s ironic that people who have in fact been working without a work permit are farther ahead in that respect, says Mancera.

“We knew it was going to be people like Lina Correal, stay-at-home moms or women doing childcare, who would have a harder time proving they were here all of these years. That’s one of the reasons we give them diplomas from Puente,” she explains, referring to the diplomas participants receive for ‘graduating’ from Puente ESL and other programs.

People sometimes assume that it’s an easy decision to leave one’s home country in search of a better life. If it wasn’t worth it, why bother? But Correal finds herself in tears when she stops to recall what it was like to leave her two children in their cribs – one-year-old Manuel and three-year-old Josefa – and cross the border to join Luis in Pescadero in 2000. She crossed with a group of 40 people by crawling under a wire in San Ysidro, near San Diego. To get there, they walked for two nights straight – trekking up steep, stony mountains and along deserted valleys, with border patrol cars in the near distance. During the day, they hid under a tree.

As she walked in the dark, her feet so sore she had to will them to continue, Correal thought only of her children. Luis had promised her that they would be sent for immediately, but it would be five years before she saw them again – her mother-in-law refused to let them go.

The most vivid moment – and the saddest – came when border patrol officers apprehended more than half the group. Correal and 13 others managed to flee and stay hidden while they listened to the others being detained and carted away. One of them was a father who kept shouting for his daughter, who had run away.

“He was saying, Rosita! Where are you?” she recalls. In this way, father and daughter were separated, perhaps forever.

That’s the kind of nightmare scenario that Correal and her husband are desperate to avoid. Today their children are 18, 16 and 14 – the youngest was born in Pescadero. They are well adjusted, happy and close with their parents. In fact, Josefa (the eldest daughter) is something of an academic star. She has an A+ in English, which is impressive considering she entered Pescadero Elementary in the third grade speaking only Spanish. She’s going to college next year, although she doesn’t yet have a driver’s license.

“We are the kind of overprotective parents that don’t let her have a driver’s license yet,” says Correal, laughing. “She can go to school on the bus.”

Josefa is one of 23 local youth, born outside the U.S., who have received work permits under DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which preceded DAPA). She will be working at Puente this summer.

For now, Correal is taking the time to gather the documents that Puente has told her she needs – such as doctor’s records, school records, and her youngest daughter’s birth certificate. She will be saving her money, since Puente estimates that government filing fees will be around $465 per person to apply.

Puente will also charge a sliding scale fee for processing applications, as a requirement of its BIA agency status. Puente is soliciting donations to help keep those processing costs to a minimum. To donate, please contact Rita Mancera at (650) 879-1691 x102 or email rmancera@mypuente.org.

Correal knew she would apply for DAPA the instant she heard the announcement. It may not happen right away, but that’s all right – she can wait. Someday, she’ll be working retail, just as she imagined.

“I know it is an opportunity to be somebody in this country. Then you will not be afraid to look for a job. It doesn’t mean they will give it to you, but you won’t be afraid to look for it,” she says.