For a new slant on our celebrations on the Fourth, the Sun’s Anna Pier talked with Vicki Handron, founder of Sonoma Immigrant Services (SIS).
What is Sonoma Immigrant Services? The mission is strengthening the community through education and advocacy. SIS has three programs supporting that. First, our citizenship program offers ESL and civics classes to prepare applicants for their naturalization interview. To pass the interview, most applicants must be able to read, write, and speak in English, and answer US civics questions. Second, SIS provides low-cost legal consults and legal representation. The consults provide people with some basic information about their options as well as some local resources. Finally, SIS has a long-term goal of being able to employ local residents, especially youth, who are certified to represent clients in immigration matters. The wonderful Alondra Marroquín has been with SIS from its start.
Tell me about what it takes to become a citizen. The first step for anyone who wants to become a US citizen is to become a legal resident, i.e., get a green card. It’s a two-year process for someone who has an immediate relative citizen who petitions for them, and the process is difficult and very stressful, and expensive. Without an immediate relative (spouse, adult child or parent), it’s very long. For instance, the wait could be 25 years for a US citizen who petitions for their adult sibling in Mexico.For example a US citizen who petitions for
After getting the green card? After five years, you can apply for naturalization, which means becoming a US citizen. Or after three years if you are married to a US citizen. The filing fee is $725, and it takes at least a year for an appointment. At the interview, you demonstrate reading,writing and speaking in English, and pass an exam on the Constitution.
How did you become a lawyer? I studied online, starting when my youngest went to kindergarten. I didn’t worry about a big name law school; I figured the bar exam was the great equalizer.
How did you get into immigration law? I had worked with wills and trusts for about six years with my brother, in the offices on the Plaza where our father Jim Kemp had a general law practice. I was always interested in practicing in immigration. Trump’s campaign made it clear his presidency would not be friendly to immigrants. I began volunteering in citizenship classes at the Family Resource Center at El Verano School. And I took an immigration law class for local attorneys, taught by Richard Coshnear, a longtime immigration attorney in Santa Rosa. This class gave me a foundation, as well as a mentor. In 2019, I opened SIS.
You started SIS as a nonprofit. What is the source of funding? We have the support of the Helen Ann Buckley Foundation. Now that we have independent 501c3 status, we will be applying for grants from a variety of sources. SIS currently has a small board (Alondra Marroquín, Patty O’Driscoll, Suzanna Bon) but we will grow the board as the organization grows and matures.
Your mother was Elizabeth Kemp. Can you talk about the influence of her and her work on what you are doing? My mom was always serving her community. With her friend Mary Shea she founded the migrant worker camps. She worked with Vineyard Worker Services, FISH, La Luz, Brown Baggers, and Sonoma Overnight Support. The landline number for SIS (996-6669) was my home phone number growing up. It’s a small reminder every day of my Mom’s influence on me and the Sonoma community.
Do you serve only the Latino community? Certainly the great majority of people we serve are from Mexico, but we have also helped people from Japan, Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala, Germany, and Belarus get their citizenship.
Challenges in accomplishing what you have undertaken? We want to be careful not to grow too fast, to be sustainable in the long term. There’s an endless amount of clients who need assistance with immigration. SIS needs to grow at a pace that maintains the quality of the services we provide. Maintaining that balance can be tricky.
Satisfactions? Since 2019, SIS has helped at least 200 applicants for citizenship. About half have been called in for the interview in SF. All have passed! I am inspired every day by my clients. Their journeys require so much – hard work, resilience, and in many cases, overcoming very difficult situations, and yet they carry on with such grace. I am honored to be a part of their journey. It is very rewarding. I get so much more than they do.
As a child, what did you dream of doing? I’ve always had a wide variety of interests that I’ve pursued in different professions. I worked in research for a real estate investment firm, I worked for a caterer, I worked in data processing for a small startup. Then I went to law school.
Max Handron, former SVHS baseball star, is playing for the Stompers. Related? Max is the youngest of our three children, the only one at home. He will be off to UC Berkeley on a baseball scholarship.
You were born and raised in Sonoma. Did you think of leaving? I’m the middle of five kids. I attended St. Francis and Justin Siena. And yes, I went to Manhattan College and lived on the East Coast for about 10 years. Moved back to Sonoma in 1997 and have been here ever since. I love to visit New York.
Upcoming? On August 20 we will host a clinic at La Luz, in partnership with VIDAS – my mentor Richard Coshnear’s immigration organization – to help people with naturalization applications. And there’s a celebration on July 30, for everyone who has become a citizen through SIS. For several years we have not been able to gather, so this will be big.