At 83 Years Old, José Is Officially An American Citizen
NWPB’s Johanna Bejarano reports on a Hispanic naturalization experience. (Runtime 3:43)
According to data from the University of Southern California, 12.000 adult immigrants are eligible to become citizens in Yakima County. Ninety-four percent are Hispanics. José Tapia became a U.S. citizen in March. At age 83.
José Tapia’s face reveals a shy smile.
In a picture, he holds an American flag and a certificate showing he is finally a U.S. citizen.
Tapia was born on a ranch in Tumbiscatío, in Michoacan, Mexico.
After being orphaned, his relatives raised him.
He started working in his home country at a very young age.
Then, he stepped on U.S. soil for the first time in his late 20s.
“I was picking oranges in Florida, I was picking apples here, in California. I almost know more places in the United States than in my country,” Tapia says.
He says he was constantly going to Mexico and coming back for work.
“And I never learned English. I was always working there with pure Mexicans and the truth is I don’t think I made the effort to do it,” he says.
Back in the 90s, he went back to Mexico and then returned to the U.S. to wait until he could get the MICA as he calls the green card that confers Legal Permanent Residence status.
Many farmworkers got their Legal Permanent Residence in 1990 after the Reagan’s Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. It’s no longer that easy.
Over the years, José Tapia and his wife had seven children; two of them live in the U.S. His daughter, who became a citizen last November, and his granddaughter Koraima Tejada, helped him overcome his fear of taking the citizenship test.
“My daughters also said, ‘no, come and study hard and you’ll get ahead’ and I said, well, yes, I’m going to do it,” he says.
He took the citizenship program at La Casa Hogar, a Yakima Valley organization that connects Latino families. His granddaughter is a fellow there. She is studying to become an Accredited Representative to provide immigration legal services to the Hispanic community in Yakima, Wash.
“My granddaughter brought me the questions, I started to study them, and I learned them in a flash,” Tapia says.
Older immigrants who have been in the U.S. legally for 15 or 20 years or longer could be exempted to take the test in English.
Jose Tapia passed the test easily.
Eilish Villa is La Casa Hogar Citizenship Legal Services Director. She says many immigrants are more fearful than Jose.
“There are psychological barriers. This immigration system is violent and people are afraid of this system,” Villa says.
There’s also the language barrier.
“Many people… have a hard time learning the English that is necessary for the interview and even when they speak English well they are afraid and embarrassed,” Villa says.
Lack of money is another limitation. While some organizations offer low-cost assistance, others charge between $1,000 and $2,000 to submit a letter or an application.
The citizenship process can also cost $2,000 or $3,000–a lot of money for many people.
Finally, there can be cultural resistance to becoming a citizen. Roberto Soto is also with La Casa Hogar.
“My parents lasted over 20 years with their MICAs, because my dad believed, and a lot of Hispanics believe, that if they become citizens they lose their roots and he didn’t want to betray his country in a certain way,” Soto says.
In an email statement, Anita Rios Moore, Supervisory Public Affairs Officer at the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, USCIS, says “the Biden-Harris administration is committed to making the naturalization process both welcoming and accessible to all who are eligible.”
According to the statement, it is part of the efforts for restoring faith in the legal immigration system.
“In line with that, on July 2, USCIS announced an interagency strategy for promoting naturalization and this includes a recent visit by USCIS Director Ur M. Jaddou to California’s Central Valley to recognize Cesar Chavez Day and outreach to this area’s Hispanic community through partnership with the United Farmworkers of America and radio show interviews with Radio Campesina,” says Rios Moore.
Those are actions USCIS has taken to reduce barriers to naturalization and promote citizenship, says Rios Moore.
Younger family members and immigrant advocates recognize citizenship’s importance, especially for voting rights.
Now Jose Tapia does, as well.
“I feel safer, I feel more secure. I feel good, I feel calm and I thank God that I made it,” Tapia says.
“This report was produced with assistance from the Public Media Journalists Association Editor Corps funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.”.
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