U.S. agency executive wins honors

Beneath patriotic banners of red, white and blue, Jane Arellano looked out at the sea of faces in front of her. They were faces of the young and old, etched with hope and anticipation, representing myriad countries, cultures and languages, all united by the singular dream of becoming an American citizen this day.

“We have the honor of being part of your journey from the day you arrived to today,” Arellano told the 3,000 new citizens from more than 100 countries at the Los Angeles Convention Center last month. “We share your pride.”

With that, Arellano, the district director of the Los Angeles office of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency, concluded her office’s final citizenship ceremony of last year.

Under her guidance, the office helped more than 100,000 immigrants in the greater Los Angeles area become citizens in the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30.

Those numbers were below the record peak of the previous fiscal year, when 1 million immigrants nationally became citizens, including 169,000 in the Los Angeles area. But the statistics helped Arellano win top honors last year for her service from both her agency and the immigrants she serves.

Arellano, 60, won the “Securing America’s Promise Award,” the U.S. immigration agency’s highest and most prestigious honor. She was also awarded the 2009 President’s Award from the Los Angeles-based National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials for extensive outreach to Spanish-speaking communities in support of the organization’s “ya es hora” citizenship campaign of the last few years.

The honor from the Latino group in particular marked a major turnabout in the immigration agency’s relationship with local communities. In the 1990s, Arellano and activists recalled, immigrant groups used to demonstrate outside the immigration agency’s downtown Los Angeles office with bitter complaints of stonewalling and of application processing times of up to two years. (The average wait is now less than five months.) Today, both sides say, the relationship has completely changed.

“There was considerable controversy and animosity toward the immigration agency because of how slow and unresponsive it was,” said Arturo Vargas, the Latino association’s executive director. “Jane turned it around.”

Arellano said she considers herself privileged to do the work she does.

A descendant of Irish, German, French and Polish immigrants -- her Latino surname is the product of a former marriage -- Arellano said that helping others attain the American dream of boundless opportunities still inspires her.

“Our country was founded on people immigrating here and becoming part of this great nation, and we’re making it happen,” she said. “Knowing we have a hand in it is so rewarding.”

That focus on service, she said, has defined her mission since she joined the agency 42 years ago.

The agency oversees all lawful immigration, including requests for visas, green cards, citizenship and refugee and asylum status.

Arellano started out as a clerk for the then-Immigration and Naturalization Service near Springfield, Ill., later moving into immigration inspection at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport.

In 1975, Arellano moved to Southern California, studied Spanish and became an inspector at the U.S.-Mexico border.

She came to Los Angeles three years later to work as an immigration examiner and was promoted to assistant district director, managing budgets, hiring and facilities.

One of the highlights of her career came in 1986, when Congress passed an amnesty program for illegal immigrants.

Arellano was assigned to get 15 legalization offices up and running in just six months, a massive job that took her from urban centers to farming villages throughout Southern California.

“It was a huge challenge,” she recalled. “There was a lot of fear that this was just a big sting, and we weren’t really going to legalize them but were just trying to trap them.”

But the program eventually enabled more than 2.7 million illegal immigrants to gain legal status. And, Arellano said, it helped her learn the value of outreach. That lesson became crucial for her in the mid-1990s, when conflicts with immigrant communities began to sharpen.

At her supervisor’s suggestion, Arellano launched a problem-solving committee with community members that evolved into regular meetings that continue today. At one point, Arellano said, a supervisor told her to stop the meetings because they took too much staff time. So Arellano made sure to bring up her meetings when then-INS Commissioner Doris Meissner was visiting Los Angeles. Meissner praised Arellano and her staff, saying: “I think we’re all not doing that enough. You keep that going!” Arellano said.

Vargas said that Arellano sprang into action the moment he told her that his organization and other community groups were planning to launch a massive campaign to naturalize 1 million immigrants beginning in 2007.

She appealed to agency headquarters in Washington for approval of extra staffing and overtime hours to handle the surge. She also made her own staff available to help Spanish-speaking media outlets publicize the citizenship process. “What distinguishes her is her real commitment to helping newcomers integrate into society,” Vargas said. “She is a trailblazer.”

As Congress and the White House prepare to push comprehensive immigration reform this year, which could potentially result in the largest legalization program in history, Arellano said she will be ready once more.

“This is our mission: What can we do to help?” she said.