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Journalist recounts path to citizenship

In his mind, Luis Sanchez Saturno has been an American since he was a teenager.

After moving to Warren from Venezuela at age 13, he learned to speak broken English as an eighth-grader at Warren’s Western Reserve High School.

Later, he attended Howland Local Schools, where he settled into his school work and American life.

“I was pretty much ignorant to my immigration status,” Sanchez recounted to me last week.

He initially had come to America on a tourist visa with his father and brother, leaving his mother and young sisters, just ages 5 and 2 at that time, behind in Caracas.

“In third-world countries, when you are a teenager, you are an adult, really,” Luis said. “My mother knew we would have better opportunities here, so off we went.”

He settled in and grew into adulthood in America, attending high school and then college at Kent State.

“Since I was a senior in high school, I didn’t think of myself as anything else but American — with Venezuelan heritage, of course,” Luis said. “In my heart, I have basically been an American since I was 17 or 18 years old — learning the language, relating to the culture. I got my first job carrying the newspaper in Warren. What a great piece of Americana that is.”

Despite all that, Luis was far from an American — at least according to U.S. immigration laws.

“I was lucky,” he said. “I was able to get a Social Security card, to enroll in school. Back in those days, it was easy to get those things. Now it’s not so easy to get a Social Security card.”

I first met Luis several years after his arrival in Warren, when he came to work as a photography intern at the Tribune Chronicle. I was working as a reporter, and we covered assignments together, with me writing the words and Luis shooting the images.

Luis still works in the field, now as a photojournalist for the daily newspaper, the Sante Fe New Mexican. Now age 42, he’s lived in the southwestern United States for 17 years.

During that time, Luis said he secured a visa that allowed him unrestricted residential status in America, and he admits at that point he started to become complacent about his future as a U.S. citizen. Other than the right to vote, he already had many privileges in America.

“I felt it (voting) was a small price to pay,” Luis said. “I won’t go to the polls, but at least I am here.”

It wasn’t until U.S. immigration policies began to change under President Donald Trump, and when Venezuela was listed among U.S. travel bans, that he started to become concerned.

“I started getting a little worried. You start thinking the worst. What if legislation would come that would void all my legal status?”

And so he began the process of applying for American citizenship.

Because he already had been so thoroughly vetted as an immigrant with unrestricted residency status, that part was easy.

Still the application process is expensive and complex with multiple steps that each requires assistance of specialized lawyers, he said.

“I’ve got a decent job, but after I pay the mortgage, there’s not much left,” he said with a chuckle.

Overall, he estimates spending about $10,000 in application and attorney fees.

Finally the day arrived in early summer for his oral citizenship exam.

After living in America for nearly three decades, attending U.S. schools and working as a journalist, one would think Luis was well prepared for the test that focuses on U.S. history and civics.

“I was sweating!” he admits.

About halfway through the 10-question oral exam, the immigration officer stopped the test.

He recalled her words.

“I am going to recommend you for citizenship,” he recounted. “Congratulations. Welcome to the United States.”

Luis’ brother also is now a U.S. citizen, along with one sister. His father now lives in Florida.

Luis’ mother died in Venezuela, and one sister, who now lives in Chili, has never been able to obtain an American visa.

“We don’t see her too much,” he said.

But with his brand new U.S. passport in hand, Luis says he now is planning his first out-of-country trip as an American in January.

He will visit his sister at her home in Santiago.

Congratulations, Luis. Welcome home.