California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation Staff Attorney Santiago Avila-Gomez smiles when he thinks of Alfredo Montoya, a 79-year-old longtime U.S. resident who only recently fulfilled his lifelong ambition of becoming a U.S. citizen.
Montoya, the father of nine, was 21 when he came to the United States in 1956 under the Bracero Program for Mexican-born migrant workers. He badly wanted to be a U.S. citizen, but worried that he wouldn’t be able to demonstrate the required U.S. history knowledge and English skills, due to his mild mental impairment from chronic hypertension.
Finally, someone suggested that he visit the foundation. He was very happy to hear that he could receive an English knowledge exemption, based on his age and his tenure as a U.S. permanent resident. Foundation staff also helped his doctor to fill out the certification for disability exceptions, so he would not be required to answer history and government questions. And they submitted a fee waiver request due to his low-income. The staff even scheduled appointments when he could get rides and sometimes got the rides for him, so Montoya wouldn’t have to figure out the bus system all by himself.
He couldn’t wait for his naturalization application to be processed. Almost every day, he would call the foundation and was told that they were still waiting. He always answered: “OK, thank you my angels. I don’t know what I would have done without you.” Montoya’s dream finally came true.
Avila-Gomez says that immigration issues are one of several areas that he and others on the foundation staff have seen as life-changing for Latino seniors.
“It all comes back to seniors becoming more involved,” he said. “They become citizens, they’re able to vote, and they become more confident in engaging their communities.”
The attorney recalled a dispute in which residents of a senior citizens building wanted to play Lotería, a Mexican version of bingo, but had trouble with another group of residents wanting to watch TV nearby with the volume turned up for all to hear. He said the Latinos had previously been reluctant to request a resolution for the impasse. But, as more resolved immigration issues and learned to deal with the senior living center’s management, they found that the center’s activities became more Latino friendly, and their wishes to play Lotería were accommodated.
Sometimes, permanent residents jeopardize their U.S. immigration status and lose part of their scarce Social Security payments by overstaying in their countries of origin, Avila-Gomez said.
“After 180 days,” he said, “the presumption applies that they have abandoned their residence, unless the person says they are moving. Once you get to the one-year mark, you have real problems with abandonment of residency.”
The sense of dealing with extended family seems to underlie such cold hard facts of the important legal work that the foundation performs.
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