NORFOLK — At a time when negativity and fear surround the word “immigration,” Radlyn Mendoza said she shares images of people getting their green card or picking up their work visas at her law office to celebrate the stories of people who’ve overcome great obstacles to feel secure in the U.S.
Mendoza, an immigration lawyer and founder of Gardner & Mendoza PC Immigration Law, has been handling immigration cases for more than 18 years and for the last five years — and in recognition of National Citizenship Day — has provided free legal assistance to immigrants who need help filling out their application for U.S. citizenship.
“You don’t have to be a lawyer to fill out the N-400 application, in fact, many people self-file and do it on their own,” she said. “But a huge part of our law firm’s business is to help people with their naturalization application because they want that extra support and assurance they’re doing it right.”
The 20-page document asks applicants to fill out information including that pertaining to schools, employers, and residences going back five years and can cost upwards of $6,000 to submit after the $725 filing fee and legal help.
After helping 40 people with their application on their Citizenship Day, Mendoza said the firm donated up to $80,000 in legal services at the event.
Once the applicants mail in their document, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ field office in Norfolk processes the form in eight-and-a-half to 16-and-a-half months, according to the website, but Mendoza said the office has been “crushing it” with six- to eight-month processing times.
The immigrant undergoes a “biometrics” screening that includes fingerprinting, photo, and background check, then a few weeks later, an interview where they’ll be tested on U.S. civics and history and are required to read and write in English.
The entire process leads up to an oath ceremony at the Norfolk Federal Courthouse where the applicant will ‘swear in’ to which Mendoza notes, “until they actually do that, they’re not a citizen.”
Some of the most common reasons Mendoza said people don’t file for citizenship when they’re eligible is one, procrastination — “that application will sit on the nightstand for three years.”
And two, they were brought to the U.S. as a child and didn’t know they weren’t a citizen to which she urged immigrant parents to file the paperwork for the sake of their children and avoid one situation she called “a devastating blow.”
“You don’t know what’s going to happen to you, or what your children are going to do,” she said. “One of my first clients had a drug issue and served her time for multiple drug charges but instead of being released, she was deported to a country she hadn’t been to since she was 2 years old.”
As the daughter of Filipino immigrants and a member of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Mendoza said she’s passionate about the topic and ensures she continues receiving up to date education.
One thing she said the public can do while understanding the word “immigrant” doesn’t necessarily mean “illegal,” is express empathy, and “approach it from that person’s world view.”
“Just to know that there are so many people here living here in our community have gone through this process and journey and have their own experiences — realize, appreciate, and understand other people’s stories,” she said.
Mendoza also said “the time to file is now” when she advised immigrants don’t wait until the next Citizenship Day.
Organizations like William & Mary’s School Law School where students represent and advocate for immigrants for class credit and other pro bono resources are available all year round.