When Kristy Ponce left Panama, nearly a decade ago, she left behind her family and her law practice. Today she manages legal service operations at Canal Alliance and is a recent U.S. citizen. Kristy shares her naturalization journey and her message to new citizens – vote!
Could you share a little bit about you and when you came to the United States?
I came to the United States from Panama in 2013. My husband was offered a job, and even though it was a tough decision, we knew we couldn’t pass up the opportunity. We ended up settling in San Rafael. Overall, it was a very safe and straightforward trip for us as my husband obtained a work visa, and my legal permanent residence was fast-tracked as a result.
What was it like when you first arrived to the United States?
At first, I felt alone. My husband was traveling a lot because of work. I had no job and no friends. Even though my husband’s family was in San Rafael, I did not have my immediate family here with me.
In Panama, I was a lawyer with my own practice. I had a whole life that I left behind. I loved what I used to do. Since I was a little kid, I always wanted to become a lawyer. I always loved to debate, and from an early age my family and my parent’s friends would call me ‘la abogada.’
How did you first get involved with Canal Alliance?
I was looking to volunteer to get involved with the Latino community, which I belong to. Through San Rafael’s Public Defender, who was a friend of my sister-in-law, I heard about Canal Alliance. I started volunteering with the Immigration Legal Services (ILS) department in 2015. The year after, I started working full time as a paralegal, then later became Managing Paralegal, and now serve as Operations Manager for the ILS Department.
When I started working at Canal Alliance, everything changed: I had a job, I had friends and I had a new family. It changed my life at the time, and I love what I do again.
What made you decide to pursue naturalization?
Being a U.S. citizen comes with a lot of responsibility. My husband and I thought about it a lot. We love to travel and may not retire here, but we also want the possibility to come back to the U.S. We were residents for five years, met all the requirements and it was just time to make that jump!
How was the process?
My citizenship application was straightforward, and we had support from Grace, the Immigration Paralegal at Canal Alliance. She is brilliant. However, I’m hard of hearing so I was really worried about the interview. I studied really hard. Thankfully, the interviewee was super clear, nice and friendly.
At the ceremony, I was so happy and proud. I do not know how else to describe it, other than ‘emocionante’ (thrilling and emotional). And the best part, my husband and I were able to have our oath ceremony together. It was a long wait because of COVID, but a great result.
How has your life changed since becoming a citizen?
I now have peace of mind. I always followed the law, but as a foreigner, even with a green card, I was still deportable. It was always in the back of my mind. And now that feeling has gone away. I also was able to vote, which was one of the principal achievements I received through becoming a citizen.
Do you have any advice for individuals who are eligible to become a U.S. citizen?
Once you become a citizen, register to vote. That was the first thing I did after I got my citizenship certificate. I really wanted to vote in the California recall and I did! I was proud and excited to exercise my rights. I think whoever can become a citizen should do it and vote because that is the only way that your voice will be heard and things will change.