New American Urbano Chavarrin holds his citizenship papers as Executive Director Linda Martinez Haley (left), founding member Steve Carlton and volunteer tutor Mary Diaz look on.
Urbano Chavarrin proudly holds his citizenship examination papers as Executive Director Linda Martinez Haley (left), founding member Steve Carlton and volunteer tutor Mary Diaz look on.

Nearly 700,000 people in San Diego County are foreign born. Many face cultural, linguistic or educational barriers that, regardless of their legal status, make it difficult to pass the U.S. citizenship interview. The North County Immigration and Citizenship Center, which is located on the campus of Solana Beach Presbyterian Church, offers legal, social and cultural assistance to immigrants. Times of San Diego spoke with Executive Director Linda Martinez Haley about the center’s work.

What’s the mission of the North County Immigration and Citizenship Center?

The North County Immigration and Citizenship Center is a nonprofit, faith-based organization whose mission is to help immigrants navigate the complicated legal and cultural path to citizenship in the United States, sharing the love of Christ with foreigners and “strangers in our lands” so that they may feel safe and secure as empowered members of our society.

What services do you offer to immigrants and their families?

The center is accredited by the Bureau of Immigration Appeals, and in collaboration with our many legal and social service partners, we offer free law clinics, citizenship classes, adult English as a second language classes with childcare, and driver’s education classes in Spanish. The center is also launching immigration services that include low-cost assistance with applications for citizenship, permanent residency and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals waivers.

How difficult is the process of becoming an American citizen?

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services department offers an abundance of materials to help eligible immigrants prepare to become naturalized citizens of the United States, such as study guides and video guides. Eligibility requirements include, but are not limited to, a continued presence as a lawful permanent resident of the United States for a number of years, being over the age of 18, passing an English reading and writing exam, and a passing a U.S. history and civics exam. This process can be challenging, time-consuming and  very costly, depending on the difficulty of the case, since the help of an attorney may be necessary. However, most immigrants express profound gratitude for the opportunity to belong to a country that honors freedom and personal liberty for all people.

Immigration is a major issue in this presidential election year. Does that make the center’s job harder?

The uncertainty about any action on immigration makes our job more interesting. We are ready to serve our immigrant neighbors no matter what the outcome of the election. We are ready to respond to whatever wave of work comes our way, whether it is permanent residents seeking citizenship, or people seeking assistance with legal issues. Regardless of national politics, immigrants and refugees will always need and appreciate the support and encouragement we offer.

How can interested San Diegans get involved?

San Diegans can get involved by volunteering, donating and promoting our agency in the immigrant communities in North County. We need volunteer tutors for our citizenship, English and driver’s education classes as well.  One specific need is for gently-used laptop computers to furnish our computer lab.  Get involved by visiting our website or calling us at 858-509-2589.

Times of San Diego regularly writes about nonprofit organizations that are making a difference in San Diego. Organizations wishing to participate in this question-and-answer series may contact for consideration.

Chris Jennewein is Editor & Publisher of Times of San Diego.