Jose Pimentel is a proud American citizen.
But 20 years ago, Pimentel was a scared 23-year-old dodging a rancher’s bullets, he says, as he bolted across the U.S. border, following a 13-year-old “coyote,” or human smuggler, into the Arizona night.
Pimentel’s journey to citizenship was a rare one — the vast majority of undocumented immigrants are ineligible for citizenship, which Pimentel qualified for after marrying an American citizen and getting a “green card.” But he owes much of his success to the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center, which by this fall will have helped nearly 800 people become Americans since 2012.
“The LIRC helped me from beginning to end,” said Pimentel, a diesel mechanic at Denver International Airport who now regularly volunteers at the center, doing administrative tasks and tutoring other seekers of citizenship. “I wanted to be a greater part of the United States, to vote, and to give back more to the country. The LIRC walked me through every step of the process, and it’s a complicated one.”
Tucked in a group of old study rooms on the lower level of Bemis Public Library, the LIRC offers a vast array of services to would-be Americans: oversight and advice on the process of citizenship, English lessons, assistance filling out forms, appointment setting and connections with other immigrant service organizations.
The LIRC’s services are increasingly important as the federal government under the Trump administration tightens requirements to achieve citizenship, said Glaucia Rabello, the center’s director.
“It’s getting really hard,” Rabello said. “They’re strictly enforcing every restriction they can. They are denying more people who apply for naturalization. Before, they might let you skate a little bit on the requirement to read, write and speak English. That’s not the case anymore.”
The LIRC only assists people who already have legal permanent resident status, or “green cards,” make the final step into citizenship, Rabello said. The center does not assist immigrants who remain undocumented, nor does it help immigrants get green cards.
For many immigrants, though, the LIRC’s flexibility makes all the difference. Whereas immigration attorneys can charge thousands of dollars to prepare forms and offer legal assistance, Rabello said, the LIRC provides many services on a sliding scale, with some citizenship application classes costing as little as $10.
Money is one of the big barriers to achieving citizenship, Rabello said, as federal fees stack up.
“We have a lot of clients who are refugees from South Sudan,” Rabello said. “Every spare dollar they have, they send back home, so their families don’t starve.”
The center offers English tutoring, which clears a hurdle for even longtime American residents.
“If you’re working 12 hours a day and commuting between two jobs, when do you have time to go study English?” Rabello said. “Many people come here with little or poor education, and we expect them to know not just English but civics. We’ll work with their schedule. You can only meet with a tutor late on a Saturday night? Fine, we’ll make it happen.”
The LIRC started in 2005 as an outgrowth of the Littleton Leadership Retreat, a community brainstorming group, according to the center’s website. Initially, the center primarily connected immigrants with community resources in a limited manner, but in 2012 it received a $250,000 grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to greatly expand its offerings.
The center now must compete with other similar programs across the nation every two years to renew the grant, which is matched by the city. The money supports five staff members and a host of other services. Volunteers like Pimentel provide vital support.
Volunteering at the center is a way to share the blessings of life in America, said Kathryn Ballinger, a retired attorney from Bow Mar who started helping out at the center nine months ago.
“I think we forget how lucky we are and what our roots are,” Ballinger said. “This felt like a good way to be a friendly face and to counter the less-welcoming messages out there right now.”
Ballinger said she’s been heartened to get to know the center’s clients.
“The people we work with are lovely,” Ballinger said. “They’re hard-working, well-intentioned and family-oriented.”
Citizenship means a better connection to family for many immigrants, said Jose Herrera-Rodriguez, who took the oath of citizenship at age 67 on July 5, thanks to help from the LIRC.
“Now that I’m not saving up for citizenship, I can afford go see my children in Mexico,” said Herrera-Rodriguez, who had been working toward citizenship for 18 years. “Well, they’re not exactly children anymore.”