People begin the path to citizenship at FIRM
President. Senators. Supreme Court.
Those were among the words spelled out in a white dry-erase board in Lucky Siphongsay’s classroom Wednesday.
“Sai-bi-dee” Siphongsay told his elder students, which means hello in Laotian. He then asked his students several questions.
“What territory did the U.S. buy from France in 1803?” he asked. “Louisiana” a student responded, raising her right hand.
The students were attending a citizenship class at the Fresno Interdenominational Refugee Ministries (FIRM) campus in Fresno.
The organization has seen a 300 to 400 percent increase in clients seeking immigration-related services since President Donald Trump took office in 2017. The class was born as a result of the organization trying to meet that increased demand.
FIRM isn’t alone in grappling with a spike in need for immigration-related help. Other organizations in Fresno too have seen the need for their services doubled or even tripled.
Organizations say both undocumented and documented individuals are flooding their offices out of fear, due to the tense climate with immigration in the U.S. — particularly as the federal government tightens its grip on those seeking asylum and undocumented immigrants.
Some organizations have even started offering new services without additional grant funding. Others have opened up offices in Fresno to accommodate the need.
Zachary D. Darrah, executive director for FIRM, said its citizenship and civics class one at 10 a.m. for Laotians and one at 11 a.m. for Hmong — was spurred from the tremendous increase of people rushing to his organization for services.
“We started with volunteers because we don’t have grant funding to do it,” he said. “We started seeing all these people coming in and I’m like, we need to do something about this.”
Many of those clients needed help getting their citizenship because they didn’t know how to go about it. Especially, given many older clients came as refugees, and English is not their first language.
The class rolled out in January, and 15 former students have already become U.S. citizens, said Siphongsay. The clients are going to their office out of fear of becoming a target of federal immigration officials and or being deported under Trump. Even those with a green card now want to become citizens to have an extra layer of protection.
“The only reason why we started this (class) was because the community asked for it,” he said.
The organization is able to reduce fear, unrest and stress among those individuals by providing the free services, Darrah said.
Silath Saopadith, 53, originally from southern Laos, has been in the U.S. for 11 years. He had struggled to become a citizen for years. But the current climate toward immigrants pushed him even more to want to become a citizen.
“I’m more eager to learn and to become a citizen. I think it’s a valuable time for me to do it at this point, especially with our government and what’s going on with the world today,” he said through an interpreter. “It worries me because I don’t know where my situation lies tomorrow and that’s why I’m in a class today.”
Maricela Gutierrez, executive director for Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network, also known as SIREN, said the organization has an office in the Bay Area. Her group began to notice how up to a 30 percent of its clients have been trekking there from the Central Valley to seek services, since Trump took office.
“Obviously, we know that there’s a gap in services, but this became so real for us when we started seeing people coming from far away,” she said.
At times, there were “endless phones ringing” in the office, Gutierrez said. The organization used to serve between 120 to 160 individuals per month. Now it’s serving anywhere between 260 to 300 people per month, Gutierrez said.
As a result of the demand, and knowing there’s limited services in the Central Valley, in March SIREN opened a Fresno office. It will hold an official ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new office Saturday. “We saw it as an opportunity to work in the Central Valley and help meet that gap,” she said.
The organization, which also does civic engagement work, turned to fundraising to cope with the additional need to offer services. “We definitely ramped up our fundraising strategy in order for us to expand in the Central Valley,” she said.
The organization has 20 staff, with about four of them at the Fresno office, Gutierrez said. The organization has a few vacant positions its hoping to fill here.
Six of those staff members are attorneys, whose service is critical, she said. Some of those seeking SIREN’s services include documented individuals who are green card-holders, but face risk of deportation for past minor crimes.
The organization also assist DACA recipients and people, who want to become citizens, but want to know if they could be penalized if they had received public benefits, like Medi-Cal or if their children received subsidized health insurance, in the past.
“The new administration has just been playing political football with the DACA problem and with people’s lives,” she said. “Key immigration laws are slowly being undone and demolished by the new administration, and we expect more of that.”
Eduardo Ramirez Castro, University of California presidential public service fellow at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation in Fresno, said the organization has witnessed a “significant increase in demand” for direct legal services, meaning someone is going through deportation proceedings or was recently detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The organization is also seeing more people seeking new immigration benefits.
“There’s a direct correlation between that and the current administration and patterns of enforcement that we’ve seen in our region,” he said. “But it’s not only the undocumented, it also involves individuals who have green cards, who have become more and more interested, and feel an urgency to apply to become a U.S. citizenship.”
They have also seen individuals with complex naturalization cases, which often go underserved because organizations either can’t take a high volume of cases, or they lack the expertise to accommodate those needs, Castro said. They see a lot of DACA cases as well, which at some point, doubled or tripled.
“The increases for immigration consultations started as early as 2017, and that coincided with a series of executive orders from the White House, and other leaked executive orders that were just drafted, but never made it into adoption,” he said, adding that the rhetoric around immigration enforcement has brought “huge level of concern.”
As Trump’s presidential term continues, the higher need for consultations continues, Castro said.
Castro said there are efforts underway to start an Attorney of the Day Emergency Legal Responder program in Fresno, someone who for example, would be the first responder when there’s an ICE raid.
The attorney would be able to provide advice those being detained, although, this program would only be able to assist at the initial stage. These cases require long-term representation — another issue that would have to be addressed, he said.
Noe Paramo, also with the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, said there’s a need for organizations to collaborate and for local municipalities to stand up and invest to help support the immigrant communities under the current climate. “They are very much part of our fabric,” he said.