Becoming a citizen is taking longer and getting tougher, and in California, there aren’t enough legal aid attorneys to go around. Meet one group of Bay Area lawyers who are trying to bridge that gap.
Jess Temple — a staff attorney for the group One Justice — is kneeling on a sticky bus seat with a clipboard of papers. A batch of attorneys is staring back at her, quietly eating free granola bars and Valentine’s Day candy.
“So I want to start first by getting a quick show of hands for folks who have been on the bus with us before?” Temple says. A few attorneys raise their hands to a smattering of applause. “Everybody else, welcome to your first Justice Bus!”
One Justice is a non-profit that works to bring legal services to high-need communities throughout California, and the Justice Bus is one of its most popular programs. It connects volunteering attorneys with legal residents who want to become citizens. Under the Trump Administration, that process is taking longer and getting tougher.
Legal residents are waiting twice as long as they were two years ago for their citizenship applications to be processed, creating a backlog at a time when some immigrants are particularly nervous about their status. The application process itself is increasingly expensive and intimidating, and in California, there aren’t enough legal aid attorneys to go around.
“Anyone want to guess how many full-time legal aid attorneys are in the state of California?” Temple asks volunteers. A few lawyers hazard a guess, but their answers are generally too optimistic. “It’s about 800,” Temple says. “That’s about 1 for every 16,250 Californians in need.”
This “justice gap” gets even worse in rural communities. So, One Justice came up with a novel solution. The organization recruits corporate attorneys from San Francisco and Los Angeles’ top law firms and gives them a crash course in immigration law. Then the Justice Bus shuttles them to Central Valley communities for free legal aid clinics.
Right now, the Justice Bus is lurching through traffic towards Stockton. One Justice has seen an increase in volunteers since President Trump was elected, and most of today’s attorneys are riding the Justice Bus for the first time.
“This is phenomenally different from what I’m usually doing,” says Justin Fisch, an associate at the corporate law firm Morrison & Foerster.
Fisch immigrated to the US from Canada when he was 11 years old. He’s one of several volunteering attorneys who watched a parent navigate the immigration system, or went through it themselves. Fisch’s father is an American citizen, and he says that made immigrating to the United States relatively easy. He doesn’t expect his clients at today’s clinic to be that lucky, and he’ll only have a few hours to help each of them with their case.
“You have to really, as a representative, gain their trust and imbue confidence that they should trust you with their story, they should trust you with what you write down on that form,” Fisch says. “And that's difficult to do in the scope of a few hours. So I expect the learning curve to be very quick.”
“If we don’t become citizens, he could send us back”
The I-5 highway’s green hills give way to Harley Davidson dealerships as the Justice Bus arrives in Stockton. Today, the attorneys are partnering with El Concilio, a local non-profit that provides legal aid and community programs to the region’s Latino residents.
The attorneys settle in for sandwiches and a refresher course in the citizenship application. Their clients start filing in an hour later. It’s a dark and rainy afternoon, but the waiting room is standing room only. There are more people here than One Justice expected. Most of today’s clients have been legal residents for years. One family shows up with their 80-year-old mother and gently parks her wheelchair next to the nearest attorney. Several parents come after work with their kids, who start drawing cartoons patiently on extra “Know Your Rights” worksheets.
Sergio Ruelas arrives with his wife. Like many people here, it takes him and his lawyer several hours to go through the paperwork. “It’s not exactly difficult,” he says in Spanish, “but they ask for a lot of information from years past. It’s hard to remember everything.”
The citizen application used to be about ten pages long. Now, it’s over 20, a change that happened during the Obama Administration. The questions can get pretty strange. Are you a polygamist? Have you ever committed genocide? Ruelas says he was asked about every time he’s left the country since he moved to the US 33 years ago.
Then there are the application fees. It costs $725 to file for US citizenship. Those fees can be waived, but the US Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS) has proposed narrowing the criteria of who’s eligible for those exemptions. One Justice Staff Attorney Jess Temple expects those changes to be implemented in the coming months.
One Justice client Sergio Ruelas says he wants to become a citizen so that he can vote. He’ll also feel safer.
“If we don’t become citizens,” he says, “He [President Trump] could send us back to our home countries. There are very drastic changes happening in this country.”
A "second wall”
Attorney Nelson Ibarra works for El Concilio, the Stockton organization that One Justice is partnering with for today’s clinic. According to USCIS, citizenship applications have gone up since President Trump took office. To Ibarra, it’s pretty clear why.
“They’re being led by fear because of the current administration,” he says, in a short break between clients at the legal clinic. “And honestly, immigration law is getting tougher.”
Last fall, One Justice sued the Trump Administration over its growing backlog in citizenship applications. The organization argues USCIS is allocating fewer resources to the naturalization process, scrutinizing applications more and denying citizenship to more people. Some advocates have even started referring to the naturalization process as a “second wall.”
“I would go further and say something as akin to like a spiked wall,” says Ibarra. “Because it's not just that potentially a person can be denied their citizenship, right?”
Ibarra and other attorneys argue that under the Trump Administration, USCIS is devoting more time to scrutinizing citizenship applications for mistakes. If the agency finds certain errors in an applicant’s past paperwork, that client could be deported.
The agency has even increased its scrutiny of naturalized citizens. USCIS launched a denaturalization task force last year, which Director L. Francis Cissna says will focus on stripping citizenship from those who obtained it fraudulently.
“If they make a mistake,” Ibarra says of his clients, “they're going to be taken away to their home country.”
A sense of urgency
By the time the last client leaves, One Justice’s volunteer attorneys have been working for hours. They pass around a bottle of red wine and plastic cups, then shuffle back to the bus, exhausted but satisfied.
Some of the attorneys start to nod off, but first-time participant Justin Fisch says he feels energized. When he immigrated to the US as a child, he wasn’t subjected to any of the challenges his clients faced. He says the experience made him think of his mom, who’s lived and worked in the US as a legal resident for years without becoming a citizen.
“I think that our immigration system as a whole is just so difficult to navigate that a lot of people just don't want to give it a go,” he says. “And you can't blame them.”
Now, there’s a sense of urgency. One of Fisch’s clients today was a middle-aged man who has been a legal resident for decades.
“The last time he came back into the country, he was detained for hours at the airport in Sacramento,” Fisch says. “He had just gone to visit some family in Mexico, just like I'd visit my family in Canada. And I think that awakened him to the idea that he really needed to focus on making sure that he had the strongest rights possible.
“Fear is a big driver,” he adds, “and I think that really hit home today.” He plans to volunteer again.