One church on Santa Barbara’s lower Westside is opening its doors to a new effort to help immigrants, including those who are undocumented, pursue the path to citizenship as well as opening a center for English learning and tutoring.
Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara, housed in one of the buildings on the property of Shoreline Community Church at 935 San Andres St., aims to help people seeking citizenship through what can be a lengthy and expensive legal process.
Shoreline is a fixture on the lower Westside, with many of the neighborhood’s young children streaming into the church’s classrooms on weekdays for snacks and homework help.
A standalone building on the church’s property will be the site of the new effort, which was just approved last month when officials from the Evangelical Free Church of America did a site visit, approving the use of the Immigrant Hope name and its nonprofit status.
The plan is to open an ESL tutoring facility by January, and the immigration services portion of the facility next June.
By June, backers of IHSB say that representatives will be on hand to determine if people qualify for or for renewal of green cards, citizenship and family-based petition. Naturalization tutoring will also be offered to help those applying for citizenship prepare for their test.
All services will be offered at low or no cost to those in need, and the group is in the process of applying for nonprofit status. It is also working toward becoming accredited by the Board of Immigration Appeals, a process that could take six months to a year to complete.
Diane Martinez, a member of Shoreline, is spearheading the outreach. She not only goes to church in the area, but she lives on the Westside. She told Noozhawk that just talking with her neighbors revealed many of the neighborhood’s desperate needs, spawning the nascent program.
An undocumented neighbor shared with Martinez what many in the area are facing. Though the neighbor is bilingual, many families in the neighborhood are not, she told Martinez, and they were being taken advantage of when they signed housing and rental agreements that they couldn’t read.
They really needed to learn English, the neighbor told Martinez, and asked if there was anything she could do to help.
“Many of them know Spanish, but they couldn’t read or write,” Martinez said. “They had no idea what they were signing, so sometimes they were signing deals that were not in their best interest.”
In addition, Martinez and other church staff would walk over to the El Carillo apartments every Sunday morning to pick kids up for Sunday School at the church, and as the staff began to get to know the families, they heard their stories.
“We had a few families where the father was deported and all of a sudden you have a mom with no income because the dad was the breadwinner and with two U.S. citizen, or more, children, and how do you take care of them?” she said. “Those issues were already going on and had been for the last four or five years.”
During this time, the church had already been invited to a conference hosted by EFCA in San Diego, asking church leaders to learn more about what it would take to start an immigration outreach program.
Martinez was part of that group.
“God was already working on my heart,” she said. “By the time I got down to San Diego and we heard that they were doing ... I felt like God was saying, ‘This is the mission of your church.’”
The group came back and did a needs assessment among 50 families in two of the lower Westside’s largest apartment buildings, asking them what type of education they’d had and what they felt they needed.
Martinez discovered a huge variety of education among families. Some spoke only a little English but had no formal education, some had only completed lower grades in Mexico, and others could speak English well but had trouble reading and writing. Most of them could agree that they needed more help to further their education in English.
“Those are two apartments, and already we had 50 people saying, ‘I need help,’” she said. “If you extend this to the Westside, let alone all of Santa Barbara, it’s a huge need.”
Part of Immigrant Hope Santa Barbara’s plan is to have one-on-one tutoring in English as well as classes, and a handful of computers with English learning software.
One of the criteria to become a citizen is that applicants must be able to read, write and speak English, as well as pass a government and civics test. In addition to having English tutors on hand, Ramirez said she would like to have some tutors on hand to do naturalization tutoring for that purpose.
People who are legal permanent residents can apply to be a U.S. citizen as long as they haven’t committed any crimes or falsified their records in any way. Many people go through the process, spending time and money, only to be told toward the end that they don’t qualify, Martinez said.
That’s where the consultations will be valuable.
“Part of this will be saying, ‘You know, you may never qualify for citizenship, here are your other options,’” she said. “That’s really what Immigrant Hope is all about, asking, ‘Do you have a legal pathway to citizenship or not?’”
The center still has some unfilled needs, including two BIA accredited representatives, an attorney to oversee efforts, a volunteer coordinator, as well as tutors for ESL and naturalization, child-care workers for parents as they learn, as well as furniture, computers, books for the law library and supplies.
Click here for more information on the effort and how you can help.