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VALLEY ROUNDUP | Panorama City

New Center Helps With Naturalization

October 10, 2000|GRACE E. JANG

Yanina Flores has lived in the United States for more than 20 years, but she only recently began the application process for naturalization.

To do so, the Sherman Oaks resident sought the free services of the Willie C. Velasquez Center, which opened a branch in Panorama City a few weeks ago.

Flores, who began the process years ago on her own, said she needed help finishing it. The application process for naturalization is a lengthy and elaborate one, requiring a series of interviews, exams and background checks.

Many delay the naturalization process, because they plan to return to their homelands, said Frank Muniz, the center's deputy director. Flores said she had delayed filing, because she wanted to file at the same time as her husband, who still visits Mexico.

Ultimately, he decided not to seek U.S. citizenship. But Flores said she finds more benefits than disadvantages to being a U.S. citizen.

"I want my voice to be heard," said Flores, a secretary for the Chicano studies department at Cal State Northridge. "I want my vote to count. And I want to have a say in my children's education."

The center, established in 1988 in the city of Bell, has opened offices in both East and South-Central Los Angeles. Officials hope to help 3,500 people by June.

The center, funded by the state Department of Community Services, helps applicants through the naturalization process--including filling out the applications, interviewing with an immigration official and submitting required documents. About 85% of the applicants obtain citizenship, Muniz said.

Velasquez, the organization's namesake who is now deceased, was a political activist from San Antonio. He founded the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in the early 1970s. He was one of the earliest champions of Latino American voter registration, Muniz said.

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