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The Central Valley News Collaborative is a project of The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.

Meet the Fresno community leaders who federal officials appointed Citizenship Ambassadors

Pao Yang, the third youngest of 27 siblings, was only six years old when his family fled Laos during its brutal civil war in the 1970s. His family sought refuge in various camps throughout Thailand.

It was a nightmare for them,” he says. “They continue to live that [to] this day.”

A few years later, Yang’s family safely migrated to the United States. In 1983, Yang’s parents started searching for their separated relatives, who also made it to America. They found that many of them were in Fresno, California.

It took Yang’s family 20 years to become legal U.S. citizens.

We didn't have the knowledge,” Yang says. “We didn't have the education, didn't know how to navigate the naturalization process.”

Now, Yang is the president at the Fresno Center, where he helps people of all nationalities do just that - navigate the naturalization process. He works closely with Margarita Rocha, the director at Centro la Familia, who does similar work for the Latino community in Fresno.

Rocha, a daughter born to Mexican immigrants who came to the U.S. in the 1940s, feels connected to the struggles immigrant families experience.

“I lived it with my parents, not knowing the depth of what they were actually going through,” she says.

Rocha and Yang are going to be taking their work to a much larger scale. Earlier this month, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services appointed them Citizenship Ambassadors.

“I had not expected this honor or the selection or recommendation,” Rocha says. “I certainly embrace it.”

Neither Rocha or Yang were expecting their selections. When they received the email from USCIS, it came as a complete surprise.

“I opened it up and I even said to my staff, ‘look at this, what does this mean?’” Rocha says. “It wasn't ‘you've been nominated and we're going to make a decision.’ It was: ‘you're recommended, nominated, and you've been selected.’”

Overall, the agency selected eight ambassadors for its new initiative. It appointed one person each from Massachusetts, Minnesota and Florida, while Texas had two selections and California had three. Two of California’s ambassadors are from Fresno County.

“The Citizenship Ambassadors will work closely with the USCIS staff,” says Sharon Rummery, the Public Affairs Officer for USCIS, “in spreading the word about the naturalization process and encouraging people in their community who might be eligible to apply for citizenship.”

According to Rummery, the ambassadors were nominated and selected based on their commitment to their communities.

In this case, Rocha and Yang are determined to help their community overcome barriers that prevent them from becoming citizens. Those challenges include the cost of applying for citizenship, fear of deportation and language barriers. Rocha says another challenge is preparing for the civics exam, which can be an anxiety-inducing process.

That’s where the ambassadors come in. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the state is home to over 11 million immigrants – or about a quarter of the foreign-born population nationwide. Noting California’s large immigration population, Rocha said she believes it’s necessary for immigrants to seek out naturalization so they are able to participate in elections.

“As a citizen of the United States, [your legal status] gives you opportunities to be able to vote and have a say on your representation,” Rocha says. “That’s critically important.”

While more than half of the state's immigrants are already naturalized citizens, there are still thousands of people in rural California who could be eligible for naturalization. According to Yang, the ambassadorships are the federal government’s way of reaching out to the immigrant population.

“To get two of us selected is a sign and a confirmation that they are listening to a lot of the advocacy groups here in the Central Valley,” Yang says.

Rocha and Yang will be starting their ambassadorships at the end of July. After that, they will be continuing to serve the community at the Fresno Center and Centro La Familia.

“I am so honored,” says Yang. “I am proud to be selected as an ambassador to tell my story and to help our immigrant community so that they also can share their stories and become naturalized U.S. citizens.”

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla reports on diverse communities for KVPR through the Central Valley News Collaborative, which includes The Fresno Bee, Vida en el Valle, KVPR and Radio Bilingüe.