With microphone in hand, City Councilmember Tony Madrigal welcomed crowd members in exuberant Spanish, high-fiving people in the front row and smiling at the small children who roamed the parish hall while their parents sat, waiting expectantly.
The occasion was the 7th annual Free Immigration and Citizenship Forum, held at the Lady Star of the Sea Church last Sunday, Oct. 18, from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.
Madrigal and the Community Information Center for Migrant Assistance (CIMA) organized the event. A multitude of people gathered in the small parish hall, sacrificing their Sunday to find out more about the few ways they can become a legal citizen of America more quickly.
Despite the grave circumstances, everyone seemed to be smiling, gossiping and talking with one another as if they were one very large family.
In the back of the hall, a panel of 12 lawyers sat at individual booths, prepared to spend three hours offering guidance counseling, hoping to lead their clients in the right direction towards citizenship.
“It’s something the community has grown to expect now and I get asked about it every year,” Madrigal said. “‘When’s it coming? When’s it coming?’ People get excited about it.”
The event began with a short PowerPoint presentation given by one of the lawyers on the panel for free consultation, Guerrero Vilma.
“We present it in order to dispel rumors,” Vilma said. “One of the main misconceptions is that people think it’s a lot easier to gain residency than it actually is. They say, ‘I’ve waited 10 years and still haven’t gotten my papers, there must be something wrong.’ But we know that 10 years is normal, and that it might be fifteen.”
“A lot of people think it’s just an easy process, but the steps are really complicated and not everybody knows where to turn to, and if we’re able to line up a dozen lawyers to steer them in the right direction, that’s a good first step.”
Vilma pointed out that many people who are not connected with the issue of immigration do not realize or appreciate how long and hard the process is to become a citizen in the United States. She said many immigrants have little to no idea about the nature of the operation.
“Education is key. People need to know where they stand, what they do or do not qualify for,” she said.
After Vilma’s speech ended, people began taking numbers and standing in line to speak with a lawyer. Tony Madrigal stood up front with the microphone again and asked, “¿Están listos para la consulta?” — “Are you ready for consultation?” Which was met with an enthusiastic “Si!”
Overall, the mood in the parish hall was one of lending a hand and helping people in need. Unfortuantely, though, some of those who attended the forum said a helpful spirit can be hard to find for immigrants, with fraudulent lawyers known to give misleading counsel.
“People get a lot of bad advice,” Vilma said. “It’s important they get the right information so that they can assess their situation and make an informed decision.”
For Madrigal, this was one of the main reasons he started the free legal forum in the first place.
“There are certain immigration consultants that are out to scam,” he said. “People need to be aware of that. I mean, they don’t know what they’re doing, and the lawyers are feeding them false hopes.”