Before the doors opened at the Cathedral of Christ the Light Event Center in Oakland on a sunny Feb. 25, a few hundred people from many nations formed an orderly line with the common goal: becoming citizens of the United States of America.
For the lawful permanent residents, the opportunity for free assistance in filling out the pages of paperwork to apply for citizenship was worth the wait. The event, sponsored by the East Bay Naturalization Collaborative, was populated with scores of volunteer attorneys, translators and other helpers trained to help with the applications and fee waivers.
The line snaked along Harrison Street from the doors to the event center to 21st Street. Some people traveled by walkers, wheelchairs and strollers. Almost everyone clutched a portfolio, a plastic case, manila folder or plastic shopping bag stuffed with the documents they hoped would move them one step closer to citizenship.
The stakes are higher than ever before, said some of those waiting in line. Many longtime lawful permanent residents of the United States expressed concerns — and fears — about their status.
Organizers said 375 people registered for the event, one of several held during the year. It is something like a circuit for some applicants, who attend workshop after workshop, piecing together the information needed to complete an application.
Elvira Abonce had driven from Gilroy, arriving before 8 a.m. for the 10 o'clock start time. A U.S. citizen herself, she accompanied a family member who brought along the last document needed to complete the application.
But they were among the walk-ins, who were invited to stay and see if they could be assisted. Abonce, too, brought along a bag. Hers was filled with simple sandwiches to sustain them during the anticipated wait.
Cathedral security officials estimated about 200 people who had not registered for the event, chose to leave the line. Organizers offered them flyers listing dates for upcoming citizenship events.
Once the registered applicants made their way to the Event Center, they were called to tables to show their paperwork to attorneys and volunteers who checked it over and asked them questions to help them complete blank lines.
On their way in, they passed Deacon Lance Vivet — something of a Statue of Liberty that day, holding the door open to a room full of help. Deacon Marty Leach was working through paperwork with would-be citizens at the tables.
Immigration is "an area where we're called to service," Deacon Vivet said.
Rosie Perez volunteered to work as a translator for the day. Immigration issues are close to her heart, said Perez, who is an attorney but does not do immigration work.
"I work with people every day who are fearful because of the administration," said Rachel Swanson, who was offering her services as a Spanish translator.
Nipa Rahim, also an attorney, was volunteering to assist the lawful permanent residents move to citizenship. "You've got to participate in government in the place you live," she said.
"We need to have the right to vote," said a woman as she waited in line. "For me it's almost 40 years living here," she said. "We need to have the right to vote. We need this respect."
The woman, who declined to give her name, said she was fearful. "We love this country," she said. "I've lived more in this country" than she had in Mexico.
A family of four waited for their turn. "Even with residency," the young father said, "people are scared."
He looked at his two children, a toddler and a baby. "This is a beautiful life for our children," he said.
At the end of the process, a 30-ish man sat across the table from a volunteer. His citizenship application was completed, he said, but he wanted to be certain.
"I want to be on the right side of the wall," he said.
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