COLUMBIA — Juan Felipe Calle and his wife, Sandra Zapata, were living and working on a family-owned ranch in Colombia when rebel guerrillas killed two of his uncles.
Years later, Calle received a letter from the rebels that made it clear he and his family were targets. He decided to apply for asylum in the United States, and it was granted to the couple on March 31, 2001.
It was the beginning of their journey to becoming U.S. citizens.
It took nearly 10 years of weaving through a complex, expensive citizenship process to reach the end. Calle will take his citizenship test on May 4 and wait 45 to 90 days to find out when he can take his oath.
Zapata will take her oath to become an American on May 7 — the day before her 40th birthday.
“If you want to be a citizen," Calle said, "you have to be patient."
Zapata works for Centro Latino in Columbia, an organization founded 10 years ago to help Latinos acclimate to mid-Missouri laws and customs. It has since evolved to help people from all cultural communities.
A year ago, Centro Latino was accredited to legally represent immigrants who file paperwork to gain citizenship status.
Legal representative Carrie Tyler now volunteers her time to work with clients. She helps them determine eligibility, cost and risk in applying for citizenship, residence or other forms of naturalization.
Since the organization began providing these services, Tyler has processed eight to 10 cases and consulted on many more.
“Most commonly, I have people come in wanting to petition for their wife or their husband,” she said. “I’ve seen quite a few cases, but sometimes people aren’t ready to pay, or they haven’t been with their spouse for long enough.”
Tyler is certified through the Board of Immigration Appeals, which means she can only handle cases that deal with the Department of Homeland Security and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. At this point, she isn’t certified to take cases that require immigration court or deportation.
She specializes in helping those who apply for the Violence Against Women Act, which helps immigrants in domestic abuse situations become citizens. She also has expertise in renewing residency cards.
Part of the process is considering the cost and risk associated with obtaining citizenship.
“I’m always very upfront about the risk involved, and they have to decide if they want to take them or not,” she said.
The biggest risk is detainment in the immigrant's home country. The time a person has been in the U.S. illegally often corresponds to length of detainment — perhaps permanently.
Tyler often refers cases outside her certification to legal assistance in Columbia, Kansas City and St. Louis.
In Columbia, she often works with immigration attorney Helene Fehlig Tatum.
According to Tatum, the current system needs reform before many families and children who came here illegally can be helped.
“The hardest thing for me is seeing families — hardworking families that want to stay together and be here legally — and there's not much that can be done for them,” Tatum said.
Forms and legal counsel can cost thousands of dollars, but Centro Latino’s policy assures that people will not be denied service if they don’t have enough money.
Low-cost legal help can be especially helpful in Columbia because attorneys who practiceimmigration law are a scarce commodity, Tatum said.
She said immigration law is a difficult and narrow specialty, which causes a shortage of legal professionals in mid-Missouri willing to grapple with the complex system.
Although some non-profit charities and organizations such as Centro Latino can provide some relief, Columbia has less access than more populated areas to financial aid and proximate U.S. Citizen and Immigration Service offices, where paperwork is processed.
“There is Western Missouri Legal Aid, and there are some organizations in St. Louis, but here in Columbia, it’s limited,” Tatum said.
Tyler said Centro Latino has evolved in the past decide and can now reach out to the entire community.
Although the organization didn’t advertise initially, Tyler has begun to market the legal service through radio and newspapers. She hopes more immigrants will come for help, regardless of culture or background.
“Through that first year, as I was getting my office set up and getting things ready, I didn’t want to be bombarded,” she said. “Now, I’m ready.”
Calle and Zapata used Centro Latino for the final part of their application process, which included paperwork and fingerprinting.
“It’s good to have a lawyer review things,” Calle said. “You have to find someone reputable and honest to help with the paperwork.”
Tyler agreed. She said the complex filing process can be relatively unforgiving.
“One tiny mistake, and they’ll send all the money and the paperwork right back,” she said.