Pablo Velez, 34, a Colombian immigrant, has been waiting for this moment for five years: In November he will be eligible to apply for citizenship.
As it turns out, waiting is the easy part. Navigating the bureaucracy and the escalating cost of applying for citizenship will be the challenge, he said.
“One has the money,” he said, “but an expense always comes up.”
Velez is one of 279,000 people in the Bay Area and 1.5 million people in California who are eligible to become citizens, according to census and Department of Homeland Security figures. But many don’t apply for citizenship because of the cost — the application fee is $650.
This year, the Mission Asset Fund, with a grant from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, launched a program to help applicants pay the fee. An orientation will be held Monday at 5 p.m. at 362 Capp St.
The grant allowed the Mission Asset Fund to develop Citizenship Tandas, a program modeled on a peer lending system often used in immigrant communities.
“We were hearing from a lot of people that it was a heavy cost,” said Tara Robinson of the Mission Asset Fund.
Under the program, a group of six people, including family, friends and community members, deposit $80 into a bank-insured pool on a monthly basis. Members take turns borrowing the entire interest-free money pool to pay for the application. The Mission Asset Fund contributes $170 to each pool.
If someone pulls their money out, the Mission Asset Fund assumes responsibility, Robinson said. Meanwhile, participants see an average increase of 49 points in their credit scores because the lending circle is considered a loan, she said.
In the long term, studies show that it pays off to become a naturalized citizen. A 2007 Pew Hispanic Center Study found that 58 percent of immigrants eligible to become citizens were low-income, but only 38 percent of naturalized citizens were low-income.
The study noted that only 14 percent of naturalized citizens live below the poverty line, compared to 30 percent of immigrants nearing eligibility for citizenship.
Velez, who is studying political science and journalism at City College, said he looks forward to voting and being able to call himself an American.
He came from Colombia as a visitor in 2000, and fell in love with the city and an American citizen who would later become his wife. He feels most at home here, he said.
“In the United States, even with all its problems, they respect a person’s freedom. I can live my life here however I want.”
In Colombia, violence and human rights violations made that more difficult.
The Mission Asset Fund will hold an orientation at the Mission Neighborhood Centers at 362 Capp St. on Monday, Jan. 23. The orientation starts at 5 p.m.