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The rush to become a citizen

Elmer Guido finishes his application with a SIREN volunteer


Today at the San Jose City College campus, hundreds of people have shown to up go through a series of steps to get them closer to becoming  U.S. Citizens.

This orientation is in Spanish but it’s also presented in Cantonese, Farsi, Vietnamese and other languages.


More than 1300 people are here to get help applying for citizenship. Hands shoot into the air with detailed questions. “If I left the country for a month is that okay? If I divorced, and my name changed will that affect my application? How long will the process take?”

Long lines


After orientation, people line up to enter a huge auditorium to begin the second step -- filling out paperwork.

Rocio who just made it into the auditorium is sitting patiently waiting to determine if she’s eligible. “I’m waiting to fill out an application for citizenship, I’m waiting for my turn in Spanish,” she tells me.

Rocio’s from Mexico, and now lives in San Jose. She didn’t want to use her last name. She’s been a resident for five years. That’s one of the requirements for naturalization. She says she’s here today because of a very important reason. “Because it’s free,” she says.


The room is full of volunteer lawyers and law students who are here making sure everyone has the right documents in order to move forward. Organizers say the turnout is nearly double the amount of people compared to last year, which is normal for an upcoming election. People want to have a voice in the vote.

Rocio nervously sits down and hands a questionnaire to a volunteer to see if she can move onto the third step.

A volunteer gives her a green sticker so she can go on to the next station, filling out a 21- page application. The crowds of people continue to pile in.  Right now around 46 percent of Hispanics are eligible to vote in California, and more than half of them are already naturalized citizens.

Naturalizing to vote

In that same line is Soledad Estrada.  She’s sitting in a plastic chair with  her paperwork in hand.


Estrada’s been been a resident for 12 years and now she wants to vote in November. There’s been a lot of  anti-immigration dialogue by some of the candidates, and people like volunteer attorney from La Raza Centro Legal, Jaclyn Kelley-Widmer, say it’s one of the reasons so many people are here.

“I think the current presidential campaign has a lot of non U.S.-born folks feeling pretty anxious.”

Final Review

On the other side of the auditorium people are making their way toward the final step, where their applications are reviewed by a lawyer.

Elmer Guido is sitting next to his 6 year old son who’s playing a game on his dad’s phone. Guido says, today is very important for him.

“We are here because we want to move forward. We came with a dream about this country and we want this dream to come true,” he says.

Elmer Guido is from Nicaragua. His son was born in the U.S. where Guido’s been a resident for 6 years. He was actually eligible to become a citizen last year but he didn’t move forward with it. Now he wants to vote.

“I don’t agree with Donald Trump, his politics are totally irrational. He uses a lot of violence with his words not just for our community but for the entire country," Guido says.

Around 60% percent of the people here today will successfully apply once all the forms are ready the volunteer attorneys go over every question again with a fine tooth comb.  If everything is in good shape, those applying will pay 680 dollars to submit their application via mail.

Good and bad news

Elmer Guido, smiles big as he receives the news that his application is ready to be submitted. Others, like Soledad Estrada, are leaving with bad news.

“I have to wait three more years to become a citizen, because I don’t know English, nor do I speak it or write it,” says Estrada.

Estrada wants to take the exam in Spanish, and although she’s been a resident for 12 years, the rules say she’ll need to wait three more to take it in Spanish. She’s very upset, her walker is shaking in her hands when she tells me this, but Estrada is most angry that she won’t be able to vote.

“It’s not fair because the Mexicans and Latinos do all of the work that Americans won’t do. If it wasn’t for the Latinos, nothing would happen, the economy would fail.”

When I ask her what she’ll do now that she can’t vote, she says she’ll just have to spread the word herself, and she’ll let people know,  “Don’t vote for Donald Trump. Vote for someone who means well for the Latinos.”

There’s another citizenship workshop this coming weekend and many here will be returning with documents that they weren’t able to provide today, hoping to make the deadline to be able to register to vote in the presidential election.


Leila Day is a Senior Producer at Pineapple Street Media and is the Executive Producer and co-host of The Stoop Podcast, stories about the black diaspora. Her work has been featured on NPR, 99% Invisible, the BBC as well as other outlets. Before The Stoop, she was an editor at Al Jazeera's podcast network and worked on creating and editing award winning narrative driven journalism. She began her career in journalism at KALW where she worked as a health care and criminal justice reporter. During that time she contributed as an editor, taught audio storytelling to inmates at San Quentin, and helped develop curriculum for training upcoming reporters.