WENATCHEE — In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hand in Hand Immigration Services found itself teaching people how to use technology and acting as a source of health information.
For the past three months the immigration non-profit has not been accepting new applications for naturalized citizens, said Norma Gallegos, Hand in Hand Immigration Services program director. It is still renewing people’s green cards. But it hasn’t meant a break for the agency, as it has added a social outreach branch and started taping videos of their citizenship classes for students.
“It is really hard because a lot of students have no access to Facebook, have no access to the internet,” Gallegos said.
During the shutdown, Gallegos has found herself driving to Okanogan County to tape notices on people’s doors about their pending immigration cases, she said.
All of the clients enrolled with the non-profit are legal residents with green cards or other forms of residency, Gallegos said. Hand in Hand is the only immigration agency in North Central Washington that provides civic classes to its clients in both English and Spanish, free of charge.
Most of her students are starting at the age of 50 with her oldest at 98 years old, Gallegos said. She had one student die from COVID-19 before they could receive their citizenship.
During the pandemic, Hand in Hand has started making videos in its office and putting them on Facebook to help clients through the quarantine. Many of her students have never used any form of technology or social media before and so the learning curve has been huge.
But it has helped some families bond during the pandemic as younger generations help their older relatives learn, she said.
“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, I borrow my nephew’s phone every Thursday at 5:30. He’ll set it up for me and I watch you,” Gallegos said.
The agency’s staff has also been reaching out and providing clients with information about how to take care of themselves during the pandemic, she said.
But another side effect of the quarantine is the cost of submitting an application to become a citizen will rise, Gallegos said. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) plans to increase fees from $725 to over $1,200, Gallegos said.
The USCIS is a self-supporting branch of the government, which means it uses the fees applicants pay to balance its budget, she said. So it hasn’t been receiving any new applications or any revenue in the past three months.
“I think people were already having an issue paying $725, (and) three trips to Yakima,” Gallegos said. “That can mean for some people three days off work.”
People are driving to Yakima to go to the USCIS offices for various stages of the naturalization process, she said.
At this point in time with the economic downturn, people becoming naturalized citizens is not their top priority, Gallegos said.
“Just calling people, people are already ready to drop their case, because, ‘Oh my gosh I don’t have money for groceries,’” she said.