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North County nonprofit helps 100 permanent residents complete 'painstaking' naturalization process

Pathways to Citizenship in Solana Beach has helped people from 35 countries apply for, study, and ultimately pass the citizenship requirements, all on the first try.

SOLANA BEACH, Calif. — The process to become a United States citizen can be a daunting task for anyone looking to go through it, especially by themselves.

While you'd think most help is centered around the border, a nonprofit is trying to spread it to North County San Diego.

"It's a very confusing, convoluted process to become a United States citizen, so we realized we needed to do more," Sonya Williams, Executive Director of Pathways to Citizenship, said.

Williams took the helm of the group just before the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw them pivoting from a focus on immigration to an all-out social services help firm.

"We held food drives, we provided furniture to a family who was flooded out, everything from computers, helped them get that," Williams explained. "[We] helped them file COVID assistance applications; since our reps are very good at legal paperwork they were able to be a big help that way."

But, the naturalization process is once again their focus.

"What we do that's a little bit unique is we really get to know our clients," William said. "We get to know their entire family, their story, and everyone is unique."

Those clients include people like Guillermina Martinez Navarrete, who News 8 talked with while she studied at the nonprofit's offices in Solana Beach.

"I have wonderful teachers who say 'you can do it, you can do it.' OK, I can do it. I'm here," she said.

Martinez Navarrete said she has been a permanent resident for 37 years. Now, she has decided to seek her citizenship. With a daunting task ahead of her, she's sought help.

"It’s painstaking, it’s a lot of time," Legal Director Morgan Principi said of the process. "But that’s what we’re here for."

Once tapped for help, Pathways to Citizenship will first check to make sure clients are eligible for citizenship. The group will then file legal paperwork with the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services offices, to formally represent the person seeking citizenship. One of more than 50 volunteers will then start tutoring, refining the client's English-speaking and writing skills, and quizzing in preparation for the questions on the official naturalization test.

So far, the organization says they've had a 100% success rate.

"That moment is really special and I don’t think people realize how emotional it is when you do finally cross that last hurdle," Principi said. "Immigration's a long journey and it’s fun to watch people come to the finish line."

A finish line that can only be crossed if people know it's there. That's where Outreach Manager Goretty Enriqeuz comes in.

"[Outreach is] very important because a lot of our community are not aware that we are here," she said.

Half of Enriquez's work is going into the North County community and talking with immigrants and permanent residents who may not even know they are eligible to seek citizenship in the U.S and find help for little to no cost.

"I myself went through the process," she said. "I was born in Mexico. Being an immigrant myself, I know what it is and not knowing where to go and where to find the services."

Williams and Enriquez said outreach can be difficult, given the fear many immigrants have over the immigration complex.

"That’s the most common scenario with our clients," Williams explained. "They are afraid, a lot of them have been burned before, they’ve been lied to."

Notario fraud-- where an attorney or a person posing as one takes an immigrant's money but does not perform the services-- is a known issue.

"I think one of the problems with immigration is people are really uncertain and that uncertainty prevents people from kind of taking the steps necessary to start the process," Principi added.

It's one of many obstacles Martinez Navarrete overcame as she inches closer to becoming a citizen.

"The United States for me is my house," she said. "I love here."

Pathways to Citizenship's services can come at a small cost or for free. To find out more on how to get the process started, go to their website here.

Information on the civics test people seeking citizenship must pass can be found here, on the USCIS website.

Information on notario fraud, the red flags, how to report it, and find help can be found here.

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