Second Time’s a Charm

When applying for US citizenship, applicants are given a second try if they are not successful in passing their interview and having their application approved on their first try. Recently, I accompanied one of my clients, May, (not her real name) for her second citizenship interview. Thankfully, her application was approved on her second try and the saying “second time’s a charm” seemed to sum up how the interview went. Typically, “third time’s a charm” is the norm, but only second chances are given out by USCIS when being retested for the citizenship application so it was important for May to have some luck – or charm –  on her side this time.

Swei Yu

May, entering the USCIS field office

May, who came to the US as a refugee from Burma, applied for citizenship this past spring after she had been in the US for five years as a legal permanent resident.  During those 5 years she worked hard in her ESL and citizenship prep classes in order to obtain the English necessary to function and successfully resettle her life into the US.  English would be necessary for her in many different arenas in her life; not only would it be a fundamental requirement for her to become a US citizen, but it would also be necessary in order to find employment, to obtain a driver’s permit, and even to converse with her ESL teachers, tutors or classmates at school.

On her first try for citizenship, May’s ability to speak, read and comprehend English came under scrutiny  during her interview.  Even though she was able to pass the civics/history portion of the test (which she calls “100 questions”), as well as the English reading and writing portions, she still came up short in showing she fully grasped what was being asked of her regarding some of the more difficult questions that were part of the N-400, citizenship application.

The N-400 questions can be extraordinarily difficult to learn – the language is cumbersome, sometime non-intuitive, and can consist of many questions rolled into one.  For example, question #16 asks:

Were you ever a worker, volunteer, or soldier, or did you otherwise ever serve in any of the following: 1) Prison or jail? 2) Prison camp 3) Detention facility 4) Labor camp or 5) Any other place where people were forced to stay?

Not only is this type of question sort of a nightmare for a tutor to teach to someone with limited English proficiency because there are so many parts to it, the USCIS officers often ask follow-up questions that the tutors are also expected to prepare the applicant for such as:

“What is jail?” or “what is prison” or “what is the difference between the two?”

Sometimes it is the inability to correctly answer the follow-up questions that is the applicant’s downfall.  So when I realized May was being asked to answer a follow-up question during her second interview, I held my breath.  When asked, “Have you ever made any misrepresentation to obtain any public benefit in the United States?” and she answered “No” she was then asked, “What does that question mean?”  Even though I was fairly confident she had been tutored on knowing what the essence of the question was and that she could answer that in her native language, I didn’t know if she could articulate it in English.

It felt like the stars aligned though as I observed May gather her thoughts and then slowly piece together an acceptable answer; “Lying to to get free things from the government.” That simple sentence seemed to culminate the vast amount of time May spent preparing for this moment – the year she spent in tutoring and the endless hours she listened to her practice citizenship CD at home.  It was the icing on the cake.  As soon as the answer left her lips, the officer smiled, told May to relax and said, “Congratulations, your application is approved.” On that particular day in Syracuse, at that moment in time, the old saying, second time’s a charm, was certainly fitting.

Sue Chaffee

Accredited Rep


Posted on July 28, 2016, in Citizenship Services, Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Marcy Schaeffer

    Dear Sue, Thank you for these write-ups I don’t always have the time to read them but I enjoyed this one as I think of my family who will be eligible to try for citizenship in 2 years and a relative, Ae Say who just passed! Thanks for all of your good work. Gaw Paw wants to look for a job this November. Do you have lists of places that will hire workers with limited English? Best to you, Marcy

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