Immigrant Stories

Our Immigration Stories: Immigration Project Intern Abigaelle Ngamboma

Whether they came over the Bering Strait, on the Mayflower, or are first generation Americans, our staff and volunteers are guided by their own immigration stories in everything that they do serving immigrants in downstate Illinois. These are the immigration stories of our agency.

This is Abigaelle Ngamboma’s Immigration Story


Abigaelle joined the Immigration Project as an intern in 2016. She provides valuable service to our agency through case work and French and Lingala translation and interpretation.

Abigaelle’s family came to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) when her mother was granted a visa through the Diversity Immigrant Visa program. In addition to her mother, she came with her father, and two sisters. The Diversity Immigrant Visa program provides visas to people from countries with historically low rates of immigration to the United States.

Her family lived in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Abigaelle was nine years old when she moved to the United States and still remembers Kinshasa. Her dad was an engineer and her mom worked as a secretary. Abigaelle went to a Catholic elementary school where she was an excellent student. There were some realities of life in the DRC that she was not aware of because of her age. Abigaelle recalls one night when gunmen were in the street outside of her home. She, along with her cousin and sister, locked themselves in the house, turned off all of the lights, and waited for the shooting to stop. It was the most vivid memory she had of political instability in the DRC.

While political instability in the DRC was concerning, education was the primary reason her parents wanted to come to the United States. Education was very important, especially to her father, and while she attended a very good school in the DRC they knew moving to the United States would allow Abigaelle  and her sisters to access opportunities not available in Kinshasa. Her parents sold everything so they could move to the United States. They lived well in the DRC, but adjusting to life in the United States was a still a struggle for her family. Like many immigrants, when they arrived the education her parents had received in the DRC was not recognized in the United States, which made finding employment difficult.

Abigaelle remembers when the family first arrived to the United States. They landed in Chicago where it was snowing, she had never seen snow before. She slept the entire car ride to her new home in Champaign.

While she was an excellent student, she was held back a grade when she registered for school in the United States. However, she was still advanced in many subjects and often found herself bored in class. At the same time the rapid speed of English spoken by her peers was challenging. Since she was a young child it was easier to for her learn English and eventually speak at the same speed of her classmates. Her ESL teacher, Madame Ho, helped her family, as well as many other immigrant families, transition to life in the United States. “At school you are trying to learn the language, at home you have to keep your language so you have to be find balance between speaking the language and learning,” Abigaelle explains, summarizing the challenge many immigrant youth face in education and at home. Her parents also took classes in order to learn English, but as adults it was more difficult for them. Her mom currently takes classes in an effort to improve her English. She uses English at work, but wants to continue improving her English skills.

Abigaelle’s family planned to stay in the United States permanently even though her late grandparents and other family members remained in the DRC. She remembers her mother studying English and civics for the citizenship test. Abigaelle also recalls the financial burdens and masses of paperwork her mother had to navigate on her path to citizenship. As an intern with the Immigration Project she has developed an even deeper appreciation and understanding for the immense challenges her mother conquered to become a US citizen. Abigaelle was still a child when her mother naturalized and also became a US citizen.  However, her sisters were too old and had to naturalize on their own. Her father also naturalized a few years later.

The DRC is almost always portrayed as a country overwhelmed with political corruption, poverty, and violence. However, this is not the country Abigaelle remembers. The Democratic Republic of Congo has many people who want to see the DRC improve and take advantage of the natural resources abundant in the country to help their country. Congolese citizens are working hard to improve conditions and Abigaelle is hopeful for the future.

“It is not as if everyone is trying to flee the DRC,” she added when asked what she wanted people to understand about the DRC. Her cousin attends university in the DRC and is part of  a new generation of people who have the desire to rebuild the DRC. “It is not hopeless. They’re not hopeless,” She said.

Abigaelle’s family may have planned to stay forever, but she might not. With the knowledge and skills she is acquiring during her time in the United States she wants to go join that new generation of Congolese youth trying to improve the conditions within the country.


By Hanna Tarbert

Our Immigration Stories: Thalia Novoa, Volunteer Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA

Whether they came over the Bering Strait, on the Mayflower, or are first generations Americans, our staff and volunteers are guided by their own immigration stories in everything that they do in serving immigrants in downstate Illinois. These are the immigration stories of our agency.

This is Thalia Novoa’s Immigration Story.

thaliawebpageThalia first joined the Immigration Project as an intern in 2013. She became the  Volunteer Coordinator AmeriCorps VISTA in 2016.  

Thalia is descended from Mexican immigrants through her mother and father. Her ancestors lived in the south of Mexico, primarily in Tequesquitlan Jalisco. It is a small rural community about three hours from the west coast. She still has family in Tequesquitlan Jalisco and like her ancestors they are still farmers and bee keepers.

Her parents both were born and raised in the same town in Tequesquitlan Jalisco. Her father left Mexico as a teenager and traveled to California and Nevada seeking economic opportunities as a laborer, he eventually reunited with his family in Illinois. Her mother also left Mexico for the United States as a teenager. Her mother reunited with her family in Chicago where she became a waitress. While the two had dated back in Mexico they had not left for the United States together. It was not until the 1990s that they would meet again in Illinois, marry and start a family.

Her family faced the same obstacles many families with mixed immigration status face: separation. As the daughter of undocumented parents Thalia grew up with the constant threat of having one or both of her parents deported. When her mother applied for legal permanent residence in 1998 she was put in deportation proceedings instead. Thalia was only eight years old. She accompanied her mother to immigration court and spoke with the judge upon whom her family’s fate rested. As a child at the time she did not know how important this day was. Her mother’s attorney was candid about her mother’s chances, stating that there was, “only a one in the million chance,” that her mother would win her case and remain with her children in the United States.

Thalia’s family was lucky. The judge saw that her mother worked and paid taxes, and like other immigrants throughout the history of the United States, came her for opportunity and family. He also understood that deporting her mother would be detrimental to Thalia, who was born a US citizen. Her mother later became a legal permanent resident and a United States citizen in 2015.

However, Thalia’s father had a longer path to legal permanent residency. It was not until Thalia became an adult that her father was able to become a legal permanent resident. Once her father resolved his status Thalia could finally find peace with knowledge that her family could never be taken away from her.

Thalia’s family is just one in a long tradition of immigration to the United States going back to before the founding of the country. They left a poor rural community and worked hard. Unlike many generations of immigrants who arrived prior to the United States government’s implementation of restrictive and discriminatory immigration policies during the twentieth century, deportation by the United States government has become a real and constant risk for the undocumented parents of US citizen children. The standards applied to immigrants today put families like Thalia’s at constant risk of separation.

By Hanna Tarbert

Our Immigration Stories: Rebekah Niblock Staff Attorney

Whether they came over the Bering Strait, the Mayflower, or are first generation Americans, our staff and volunteers are guided by their own immigration stories in everything that they do in serving immigrants in downstate Illinois. These are the immigration stories of our agency.

This is Rebekah Niblock’s Immigration Story.


Rebekah Niblock has been an Immigration Project Staff Attorney since 2013.

She is the descendant of Scottish immigrants through her paternal line. They arrived throughout the 1700s to escape famine and political instability.  Her ancestors were among the earliest colonial settlers in the Appalachian regions of what later became the United States. Her immigration story is the story of two families: the Niblocks and the Caldwells.

Rebekah’s Caldwell ancestors have a rich history. The Caldwells were sailors and other sea-farers that served and worked  in the Mediterranean during the fourteenth century. Afterward, they settled in France where they remained until religious persecution under King Francis I forced them to flee to Scotland.

Upon arriving in Scotland they purchased land under the condition that they would send sons and fighting men to help King James V of Scotland.

One of the Caldwells, John Caldwell, married and relocated to Ireland, as many of Rebekah’s Scottish ancestors would do prior to resettling in the colonies. John did not feel Ireland was safe for his new family and sought to join family members already in the American colonies.

The Caldwell family arrived in the colony of Delaware in 1727, then relocated to Lancaster, Pennsylvania and later relocated again, this time in Virginia in 1742. Other Caldwells joined them to Virginia and formed the “Caldwell Settlement.” Many descendants of the Caldwell Settlement also relocated to other colonies and, after the American Revolution, different states throughout the east coast.

Her ancestor that bears her surname, William Niblock, came to North Carolina circa 1750. He arrived with other colonists to Pennsylvania and settled in the northwest corner of Rowan County, North Carolina.

William was a Scotsman who, prior to arriving to North Carolina, moved to Ireland seeking better economic and political conditions. However, famine in Ireland and continued political turmoil compelled him to seek new opportunities in the colonial United States. The land William was able to purchase remains in the Niblock family.

Today Rebekah helps many people with immigration stories similar to her own ancestors. Hundreds of years ago John Caldwell sought to reunite with family already in the Americas. Now, Rebekah helps clients sort through the complicated immigration system that often stands as an obstacle between them and family reunification.

Rebekah helps immigrants fleeing persecution as her own ancestors fled religious persecution in France and later fled political turmoil in Scotland and Ireland. Today Rebekah’s ancestors would have been called “asylee seekers” or “refugees.”

Her ancestors also made the journey to the colonies in order to escape famine in Ireland. Countries in such dire conditions today sometimes qualify for “temporary protected status,” something Rebekah helps immigrants in downstate Illinois apply and re-apply for today.

The Immigration Project is the principal provider of high quality low cast immigration legal services in downstate Illinois. To learn more about our mission and how you can contribute please visit us at, you can also like us on Facebook or follow us on Twitter.


By Hanna Tarbert

U.S. Veteran Becomes a U.S. Citizen

sal pic-page-005Saul Albanán Navarrete was one of our New Americans Initiative (NAI) clients that we helped naturalize last year. Saul has lived in the U.S. for over 27 years and served in the U.S. Armed Forces as a Colonel. He received a medal of honor for his service at his oath ceremony. He wrote his case worker, Christine Howe, these beautiful letters expressing his gratitude and outlining his experience at the oath ceremony. We just had to share his kind words and excitement!



saul albarran-page-0017-20-15


I am writing you this letter to thank you for your valuable help, so that I could get citizenship. On Friday, the 17th of July, I went to Rock Island and achieved what I had yearned for, for so long. Glory to God and to you all. I am already a citizen of another country, with fills me with great pride, joy, and satisfaction. I am asking a favor of you, that you would extend my gratitude to all of your companions that cooperated to help achieve this, which I have dreamed of. I hope that Gods blesses you and everyone else and that you are always fulfilled and joyous.

Saul Albanán Navarrete

            DePue, IL               Thank you!

DePue, Il     12-15

Christi:saul all-page-001

I greet you with much care and affection and wholeheartedly hope that when you receive this letter that you are free of problems and that you are always full of happiness. I am responding to your kind letter and am sending you what you have asked of me. At the swearing-in ceremony we didn’t take pictures, because we didn’t bring a camera nor did we bring a cell phone to take them, thinking that maybe they weren’t permitted. But I sent you a similar photo that appears in my Certificate of Citizenship, I hope that you will excuse it because I am very old!

Also, I am sending copies of some documents that they gave to us on this glorious day! One of the happiest days of my life, and one I will never forget, and thank you again Cristi! I hope that God will bless you for the rest of your life. Take care and I hope that you’ll always be successful in all your future endeavors.

                                I am happy…

Saul Albanán Navarrete

P.S. Also, I sent you a copy of my medal of honor, that he gave me (in the ceremony), a Colonel of the Armed Forces of the United States, for my records. Near perfect! (he said) that I’ve had in this country, from the time I arrived 27 years ago.

sal pic-page-001 (2)sal pic-page-001Copies of Saul’s medal of honor.


sal pic-page-004
Naturalization Ceremony Program

sal pic-page-003Congratulatory letter from President Obama.

sal pic-page-002Information on Citizen’s rights and responsibilities.




A Citizen Unknown

Meet Ziyad. Unknowingly Ziyad became a U.S. citizen when his parents naturalized in the 1970s.

This is the second video of our client series.

An American Dream Gone Wrong

Meet Komi and his family. He came here from Togo 7 years ago with a master’s degree only to find that the American jobs he was qualified for wouldn’t acknowledge it.

This is the first video of our series of client stories.

Story of Courage, Resilience, and Persistence

 At 20 years old, María came to the United States with her infant daughter. Her family had been coming to the United States as seasonal field workers in California, but María had always stayed in Mexico. This resulted in her mother, father and six of her siblings qualifying for Legal Permanent Status through the Amnesty Program while she was denied. María needed to stay with her family so when she, her husband and daughter entered the U.S., they entered as undocumented. Except for two of her older married sisters, the majority of her family had decided to stay and make a new life in the U.S. Since María’s parents had Legal Permanent Status, María and her young family hoped the petition that her parents were able to submit for her would give María a priority date in a few years. María’s petition was made in 1993; however for the category of adult children seeking Legal Permanent Residence there was a long wait. 20 years passed.

For 20 years, María worked and raised 7 children in Bloomington, all the time as an undocumented immigrant. She was active in her children’s schooling and kept a job for all those years. Even after her first child born in the U.S, Roberto, turned 21 she had not received her priority date for changing her status to Legal Permanent Resident. Since Roberto is a U.S. citizen, he brought his mother to The Immigration Project to start the application process for Legal Permanent Resident status. Roberto filed a new petition for his mother, and María sent in her Adjustment of Status Application, with other supporting documents. Roberto had not worked long enough nor was making enough money to qualify for the Affidavit of Support, one of the required supporting documents. Therefore, they had to seek help. Due to María’s hard work and value in the work place her employer was glad to help with the affidavit.

After submitting her applications and supporting documents, María received a Biometrics (a process of fingerprinting etc. that everyone in the process must go through) appointment. Having no form of identification, María was in danger of being picked up by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) if she traveled to the location where the Biometrics process was scheduled. The Immigration Project helped write a letter to the Mexican Consulate in Chicago to obtain her Mexican Passport and with that identification she was able to complete the Biometrics appointment.

After completing the Biometrics process, María received her interview date. She and her son went to Chicago to meet with an Immigration officer.  Finally after more than 20 years of hard work, courage and resilience she was approved for Legal Permanent Residence.  Within two weeks she received her Employment Authorization, enabling her to get a Social Security Card and a Driver’s License. Finally, a few months later she received her Green Card. In a few more years as a Legal Permanent Resident, María will qualify for citizenship, meaning she will have finally accomplished her dream.


The Immigration Project got its first Form I-212 approval, which will allow a husband and father, who has waited in Mexico for 10 years, to finally join his family in the U.S.  He will be joining his U.S. citizen wife and two U.S. citizen daughters, who he has been living separated from since 2006.  

The backstory:
Mr. G Salinas (name changed) met his wife in Mexico after he returned from working and living in the U.S. without permission. He decided to marry her and stay in Mexico and they had a child. Because she was a U.S. citizen and wanted to live in the U.S., she traveled to the U.S. . While there, she learned she was pregnant with her second child and decided to stay, visit him in Mexico, and work to bring him to the U.S. They didn’t understand he was barred  from entering the US due to multiple entries without permission, and so he had to remain outside for 10 years,…AND  then they didn’t understand that he would need special permission from the U.S. government to come back after the waiting 10 years. Until she met with our agency, after he was once again denied at the consulate at Ciudad Juarez.

New U.S. Citizen Cast His First Vote

Pablo Varela, a native of Mexico, became a U.S. citizen on November 1, 2013, and voted in his first election in March.  When asked why he wanted to become a U.S. citizen, Mr. Varela responded, “I wanted to be able to vote.  It’s important for me because I have lived here many many years with my wife, Virginia.  I like the country.  I go to Mexico to see my family but I just stay a couple weeks, because I want to be with my wife here.”

swearing in 2013Varela

New U.S. Citizen in Sterling, IL

RutiliaI want to let you know why I decide to become a US citizen.

Two years ago, when I moved to Sterling, IL, I started to hear about places where I could get help to become a citizen. I decided to go to the Sauk Valley Community College to begin the process through the Immigration Project.

Lastly, on June 21, 2013 I became a citizen of the United States. I am very proud and happy for having obtained my citizenship after many years of wising to do it. The most important motive to become a citizen is that I can have more rights and responsibilities in this country. Some of the most important ones are for example to vote to elect the person to lead my country, to show my loyalty and to contribute to make this country better.