SAN JOSE -- The path that took Karla Contreras from her home in Mexico to a new life in San Jose has been a long and painful one.

Contreras, 23, is a legal permanent resident, commonly known as a green-card holder. She has lived in San Jose since she was 14 and works the night shift for a janitorial company. Now Contreras is ready to take a bold next step: becoming a U.S. citizen. On Saturday, she was one of 110 people who braved the rain to attend a free citizenship workshop at the Roosevelt Community Center in San Jose.

"I have a 5-year-old daughter who just started kindergarten," said Contreras, who never finished high school. "Taking her to school is inspiring me. My life has been really hard, and I don't want her to go through all that I went through."

A coalition of San Jose organizations, in partnership with City Councilman Sam Liccardo, hosted the free workshop to help eligible legal immigrants become U.S. citizens. The workshop was part of a national "New Americans Campaign," a robust effort by legal service providers, faith-based organizations, community leaders and foundations to remove the barriers to citizenship.

In Santa Clara County alone, it's estimated there are 190,000 residents -- most of whom are from Mexico -- who qualify for citizenship. But less than 14 percent apply each year.

"It's a daunting process, and the $680 fee is a big barrier," said Vanessa Sandoval, program director for immigration legal services at the Services, Immigrant Rights and Education Network.

In addition, she said, "People are afraid. Immigration is seen as a law enforcement agency, and people are afraid that if they go through the naturalization process they could be deported."

Other barriers include requirements that they speak English well and pass a test that shows they understand American history and how the U.S. government works. Saturday's workshop was an effort to demystify the process.

Contreras grew up in Nayarit, a small state on Mexico's west coast. She moved to San Jose to live with her father and his wife, an American citizen who adopted Contreras and her older sister so the girls would be legal residents. But leaving Mexico, where her mother and two of her siblings still live, was heartbreaking.

"At first, my dad would call on the phone to Mexico and talk about us coming to the United States for a vacation," Contreras said. "Then my mom was like, 'You are going to live with your dad.' I was like, 'Oh no, I'm not going.' And my mom said, 'You should go; you will have a better future.' "

Contreras says that adjusting to her new life in the United States, and living with her father and stepmom for the first time, was hard. She attended Andrew Hill High School in East San Jose and struggled to learn English.

"Most of the teachers spoke Spanish, so that made it easier," Contreras said. "But some teachers were like, 'You are in the United States, you should speak English.' "

At 17, she got pregnant. She struggled to juggle doctors appointments with school work and dropped out in the spring of her senior year. Her father was furious and asked her to move out.

Contreras' janitorial shift is from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. She misses being able to have dinner with her daughter and husband, who is also an immigrant, and would love to find a better job with daytime hours.

She believes becoming a citizen will help her get that job. But she says the naturalization process can seem overwhelming.

"I am most worried about taking the test," she said. "What if I don't pass it? I am trying to study."

Contact Dana Hull at 408-920-2706. Follow her at Twitter.com/danahull.