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.
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.
For several years, we have collaborated with Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) to ensure immigrants and refugees who are ready to naturalize have the professional services in place that are needed to help them navigate their way through the citizenship process. We refer our clients who need citizenship prep services to TLP, and likewise, they refer their students to us so they can access our legal services to have their citizenship applications prepared and filed. Having our programs linked in this way has proved to be a formula for success as the overwhelming majority of our shared clients/students successfully attain citizenship.
Since the citizenship process can be challenging and daunting for those who have limited English proficiency, TLP’s ESL coordinator, Helen Ranck, relies on volunteers to tutor students for the citizenship test. It’s reassuring to know that when our program refers clients to Helen, they are put in very capable hands since she has an excellent group of tutors. For example, one of the TLP volunteers, Sally Wessels, has been meeting with a small group of women who all came to our program to get helping filing their citizenship application. Sally, who has 25+ years in teaching ESL, has been working with them on a weekly basis for sessions that last 1 ½ hours for almost a year now.
Because TLP attracts such talented tutors, it’s not surprising that someone like Sally landed there after she retired a couple of years ago. After leaving her adult ESL teaching job in 2013, she said it just felt right to her to continue doing something she has loved with people she has enjoyed knowing. One thing led to another and in 2014 TLP asked her to focus her work on several people who were preparing to become citizens, including the small group she is meeting weekly. This group all has their citizenship interviews scheduled for later this summer so Sally is in the final phase of teaching them the concepts they will need to be successful.
TLP has developed strategies their tutors employ in order to teach the materials needed for the civics and English portion of the citizenship test. Sally described how it’s easy to take for granted the prior knowledge someone from the US has gained as a result of many years of schooling in English and living in a culture with a well-developed civic society. However, English learners who grew up in villages with no electricity and no motorized vehicles and very little schooling even in their own languages have a lot of trouble understanding words like constitutional convention, Federalist Papers, and even colonies and territories and nation. But she and the other TLP tutors have strategies that ease students into the process. For example, Helen explained, “When tutors start with a new group they tend to start with something easier that the students already know, like the geography of the US. For example, they have a capital city, we have a capital city. They have major rivers, and so do we.”
Thankfully, their strategies seem to be working. I witnessed this the other day when I attended a mock interview facilitated by USCIS Community Relations officer, Jan Owens, and Sally’s students were calling out answers to civics and geography questions correctly that were posed to them. This indicated that Sally had found a way to negotiate the difficulties and is gearing her group of women for successfully attaining citizenship. And when asked what the longest river was in the US, the group answered like they were on a game show, “Mississippi.”
I recently met with Hser Blut (pictured left) and Bailtal (pictured right), who came to the US in 2011 and are now applying to be US citizens. Both young men have a lot in common. Not only are they cousins, but both are pursuing accounting degrees in college, both came to the US as refugees from Burma and both are applying for citizenship with their mothers. This last similarity – applying for citizenship with their mothers – really resonated with me. As someone who recently celebrated Mother’s Day with a son who is similar to their ages, I was touched by how both of them were taking the lead role in helping their mothers navigate their way through the citizenship process.
I was hoping to post this on or near May 8th – the day Mother’s Day was celebrated this year in the US, Burma, and many other countries around the world. But I’m a bit late. Still, I want to take the opportunity to pay a tribute to the mothers who have resettled in the US as refugees and to acknowledge the hard journey they had to take to get their families to where they are today. It is a well-known fact how painful going through the refugee experience can be on refugee women and their children and the high incidences of trauma, grief and loss that is often associated with the process. So when I saw these two young men accompanying their mothers to their appointments with me, it moved me and made me think how fortunate all of them were to be going through the citizenship process together.
During our appointments, it was clear both sons had better English speaking skills and therefore often answered questions I directed to their mothers. However, they both expressed they had confidence in their mothers’ ability to be successful through the citizenship process. Bailtal stated he hoped to give his mother confidence as she learns the English necessary to take the civics test. He said he can’t wait for them both to have the “right to talk, to express [their] ideas, and to vote.” Hser Blut described how even though he spent most of his childhood in Mae La Oon refugee camp in Thailand he came away with pretty good memories of his time spent there. He realizes how his mother and the other adults shielded him and the other children from worrying about the uncertainty of what was happening with their lives since they lived there for close to a decade.
It was gratifying to see these two mother and son duos and to reflect on how their life experiences are about to include becoming US citizens together. This not only shows a lot of resiliency and determination on their part, but also reflects on how connected and interdependent they are on each other. Even though Mother’s Day 2016 is behind us, I still wanted to acknowledge those refugee women who are mothers and how admirable it is they managed to get their families resettled in a safe environment. And at the same time I want to say how heartening it was to have Hser Blut and Bailtal come to my office so I got a chance to see first-hand how caring and protective they were of their mothers.
In 2010, after 12 years of living in a refugee camp on the Thai/Burmese border, the Soe family came to the US through refugee resettlement and made Ithaca their new home. Only 6 years later, each and every member of the Soe family is now a US citizen. The combination of a strong desire to be successful and tackle the English and other requirements needed to get on the path to citizenship, as well as accessing a lot of support from the community, made this all possible.
This joint effort included the parents getting English instruction from BOCES ESL program and citizenship prep tutoring from Tompkins Learning Partners. Once they were eligible to apply for citizenship (there is a minimum 5 year wait) and had acquired enough English to demonstrate they were proficient in English, we played our part by preparing and filing the parents’ citizenship applications and eventually individual applications for each son to receive his own citizenship certificate. Did I mention there were 5 of them?! Family and friends also pitched in by accompanying them to scheduled appointments at Catholic Charities and with the immigration office in Syracuse, as well as cheering them on at their swearing-in ceremony.
The picture above of this beautiful family reflects the culmination of these combined efforts and reflects the strong desire refugees have to be successful in integrating their lives into the United States. I just want to congratulation and acknowledge the Soes and say how gratifying it was to play a part in their entire family becoming US citizens.
I wanted to acknowledge and give a heartfelt thanks to the Community Foundation’s Women’s Fund for supporting the ISP Women’s Path to Citizenship, an initiative to help immigrant women receive financial assistance in applying for citizenship and legal permanent residency. This is the 5th consecutive year the Women’s Fund has generously supported this project.
Back in 2012, one of the first recipients to receive monies from this project to put towards her citizenship application was Thet Mar, (pictured left), who came to the US as a refugee from Burma. The other day she was visiting Catholic Charities and when we discussed how many of her Burmese friends are going through the naturalization process, she commented, “Everyone is so proud when they become an American citizen. When you are a refugee in this country, you dream about being a citizen.” But the reality is the naturalization process is difficult to afford and this can be a barrier to citizenship for women who live in low-income households.
When we first began offering citizenship services at Catholic Charities in 2010, many women would come to us wanting to apply for citizenship but they had household budgets that didn’t support paying the $680 application fee. This fee was often much higher than their weekly take-home pay. Even though they worked for low wages and were considered the “working poor” oftentimes their total household income was just slightly over the government’s guideline to be eligible for a fee waiver.
When I conceptualized the original project – the ISP Women’s Citizenship Project – I was looking to assist non-citizen women become US citizens because that is the ultimate benefit many immigrant women, such as Thet, are seeking. As I began to cross paths with women who qualified for green cards but who also couldn’t afford the high fees, I modified the project, renamed it the “ISP Women’s Path to Citizenship Project” and applied once again to the Women’s Fund. This will be the 3rd year of including women who have a path to citizenship but need to start with the basics – a green card.
The results of having these funds cannot be overstated. Over the years we have assisted women who were excited to vote in their first-ever election as US citizens. The funding has also helped women come out of the shadows and apply for their first green card and therefore go to school and receive in-state tuition or legally obtain work for the first time since entering the United States. This funding also helped refugee women (like Thet) obtain their first passport ever; a document that allows them to return to their former home country after being exiled for many years. We see these funds as creating a lot of “firsts” and are excited to be receiving another check to keep the momentum going.
This past August, I attended a citizenship ceremony in Ithaca and was so happy when I realized one of my former clients was included in the row of immigrants standing in the front of the courthouse taking the oath of allegiance. She was an Indian national who I had provided advocacy for regarding her citizenship application in 2012. We had initially met during a legal consultation that resulted in me providing her some legal advocacy through our local congressman’s office. Through their efforts, I found out her case was still pending due to a FBI “name check” and her case had succumbed to something that almost resembles a black hole.
I eventually would attend an immigration conference and inquired about her case because the extraordinary amount of time the background checks were taking seemed cruel. I found out there had been some success in suing the US government using the “writ of Mandamus” for cases where citizenship applications had been left pending for an unreasonable amount of time. This particular lawsuit can be filed to actually force (or mandate) a government agency such as USCIS to make a decision. I was excited to pass this info on to my client when I found out her case was still pending and recommended she make an appointment with a local law firm. I never knew the outcome of her case until I saw her naturalize.
We met after she naturalized and it was that I gained some insight into the emotional toll she had endured because of the lengthy citizenship process. I also found out she never sued the government because it was too costly. I asked her to write about this especially since she had waited a mind-boggling eight years to have a decision made on her case. She had a constitutional right to have a decision made on her application in a timely manner so I think her story, and stories similar to hers, should be told. Here’s what she wrote….
“I applied for my citizenship in August, 2007 and was very excited when I was scheduled for my interview in February, 2008. My interview and the officer told me that I would receive a request for more information or an invitation to the oath ceremony in the mail. I got impatient and frustrated when I did not hear back from the immigration office after 120 days and called customer service which could not give me any further information besides letting me know that they would put a note in my record for an officer to get back to me within two weeks. I approached a lawyer and paid $500 for a first session and realized he wanted more in fees to pursue this. I decided to do the research and follow up on my case. I visited USCIS website and saw that there was a back log of cases and background checks were delayed.
A year later I set up an Info-pass only to hear the same answer. Months turned to years, frustration replaced hope and I decided not to think about it (easier said than done); at the end of each day my thoughts would wander back. My family, work and life went on but this little thought nagged at the back of my mind.
Four years later, I heard Catholic Charities was offering free consultations on immigration cases. That’s where I met Sue Chaffee and she heard me out and told me that I was not alone and that she had seen this happen with others. She offered to follow up on my case and came up with the same answer; my case was probably deep down in the black hole of background checks! Although this answer was disappointing, it brought back my hope until a couple years later when Sue attended a legal immigration conference and discussed my case. When she got back, she advised me to hire a lawyer and sue the government. This was going to be expensive though and at that point I had two kids in college so I decided not to pursue this option.
It was over for me! Now my thoughts wandered off to, will they renew my green card? Do I have a future in this country? Should I start preparing to go back to the place I once called home? How do I prepare my kids for this? The list kept on and on and the stress creeped in. The only thing that works for me in times like this is prayer. My focus moved to planning for our family in all aspects, although in my heart I knew there was really was no option I belonged here, this is my home.
This past January, I tried emailing again and actually received a letter with an appointment date! This was fantastic!! I was interviewed for two hours and my entire immigration file was reviewed. There is always this fear that I may not remember the exact details, which at certain times I just could not. The officer said to me that he was not convinced and would need more time or information. He also mentioned that I should be glad that I still had a green card which gave me access to live and work in this country. I finally said to him what I wanted to all this time. I completely understood that he was doing his job and if he was not convinced he should not give me the citizenship. I dreaded the statement he made as I was leaving that I would probably have to come in one more time. In my mind I had decided I was never going back.
In exactly sixty days I got an invitation to my oath ceremony in the mail. It was hard to believe! I was skeptical and went to the oath ceremony fully prepared to be questioned again. I was skeptical and went fully prepared to be questioned and my application denied. It was a beautiful ceremony which I would have loved to share with my near and dear ones, but didn’t. But alas, I finally naturalized and the only emotion I felt was relief! The long waiting game had consumed my enthusiasm, excitement and joy. I love my life in the US, I learned a lot from my people around me and found myself and strength for which I will always be loyal and grateful to this country. For me, the lyrics of the star spangled banner sum it up: The land of the free and the home of the brave, In God is Our Trust.”
This week I interviewed Tee Hla, a Karen refugee from Burma. Over the years, I have come to know Tee Hla in a few different areas of her life. I worked with her, her children and grandchildren in different jobs through my previous job at Challenge Workforce Solutions. On May 6th, 2015, I witnessed Tee Hla become sworn in as a U.S. citizen. I wanted to write a post about what a great accomplishment this was so invited her in to sit down for an interview. Her oldest son, Paw Pha, served as her interpreter.
Prior to becoming a U.S. citizen, Tee Hla spent ten years in a refugee camp in Thailand and then immigrated to the United States. She flew to the U.S. with 6 of her children and arrived in Syracuse in October, 2006. Paw Pha had arrived a few years earlier and helped his mother and his siblings settle in. Tee Hla is the mother of 16 children and 13 of them now reside in the U.S. She remembers feeling nervous and a little uncomfortable since it was such a big change from where she was living in Thailand.
With her citizenship, Tee Hla’s 14 year old daughter derives citizenship making all 13 of her children who are living in the United States citizens – something she is extremely proud of. Paw Pha mentioned that the Immigrant Service Program helped all of Tee Hla’s children become U.S. citizens. We celebrated with Tee Hla on her ceremony day.
ISP: Why did you want to become a citizen?
Tee Hla: I wanted to become a citizen because I know that retirement is important in the United States and Social Security is also important. My sisters live in Thailand and I would like to visit them. When I get my U.S. passport, I will be able to visit my sisters without any problems. Before becoming a citizen travel to Thailand was very difficult. I have four sisters in Thailand; 2 live in the refugee camp and two live outside of it. I have not been to visit them since 2009.
ISP: Did you apply for a U.S. passport?
Tee Hla: Yes, on May 6th, after my citizenship ceremony, Paw Pha and I went downstairs in the courthouse and filled out an application for a U.S. passport for me. I hope to travel to Thailand by the end of this year.
ISP: What did you have to do to become a citizen?
Tee Hla: I started to take classes at TLP (Tompkins Learning Partners) with my teacher, Evan. I studied with Evan for more than one year. I had a tutor/teacher also. My children helped me to study for the exam when I was at home. They asked me questions and I answered them. Every day, I listened to the CDs (CIVICs), practiced reading and writing and read the 100 questions book. Then I took the test two times, one time in Buffalo and once in Syracuse with Sue (Chaffee). I passed and I am so happy.
ISP: What was the hardest part of the test?
Tee Hla: The hardest part for me was memorizing and pronouncing people’s names and the 100 questions. “Have you ever…”, “Do you support…” I had to practice over and over again.
ISP: And was there an easy part?
Tee Hla: Easy part? (Laughter and shaking her head, no)
ISP: Since you had so much help getting your citizenship, are you helping anyone study now?
Tee Hla: Yes, I am helping my friend. I say to her, “Use the talking dictionary and the 100 questions CD.”
ISP: What do you remember from the citizenship test? (ISP Prompt)
Tee Hla: There are fifty stars for fifty states and 13 stripes for 13 colonies
ISP: Do you think you will vote for the U.S. president next year?
Tee Hla: Yes, I think I will vote.
As I mentioned above, I met Tee Hla in my previous job. We first met when she was working at Finger Lakes Fresh greenhouse, now closed, off of route 13 in Ithaca. She was the fastest lettuce packager on staff, wistfully singing traditional Karen songs or on occasion along with the pop songs on Lite Rock 97.3. Come to find out, at her church, Tee Hla and her children are known as the “Paw Family Singers” as they often sing traditional songs for their parish. I worked with Tee Hla and her coworker to improve their understanding of the daily activities at their job. We worked on vocabulary specific to the greenhouse and common phrases for her to use at work. Tee Hla quickly picked up the phrases and steadily worked on the vocabulary. She would often pick up an item and say the vocabulary word to confirm understanding.
During that time, I would drive the workers home from the greenhouse and in doing so, I engaged them in conversation. Knowing Tee Hla was studying for her citizenship, I would ask questions of her to practice for the speaking exam. This was the beginning of Tee Hla’s path to citizenship. It is a pleasure to have attended her celebration. Her whole family, sponsors, tutors and clergy members attended the huge party at her son’s home after the ceremony. Everybody talked about how proud they are of her accomplishments. Citizenship is the final step in Tee Hla creating her home here in the United States. She can now relax knowing she can enjoy her time with her children and grandchildren and will keep working until she retires. If you knew Tee Hla, you would know she only stops working when it’s time to go to sleep.
A huge thank you to Paw Pha for interpreting for Tee Hla and of course to Tee Hla herself.
I recently heard one of our citizenship clients was asking if he could legally change his name at his citizenship interview. This didn’t surprise me too much since I have had many clients opt to change their names during the naturalization process and if that is what they want, it is an ideal time to do it. What surprised me though was the new name he has selected – ”Lucky.” Didn’t’ he just go through one of the coldest, most difficult winters on record along with the rest of us who live in the Northeast? How anyone could come out of the worst Februarys EVER and want to change his name to “Lucky” not only surprises me, but it also inspires me.
For some new citizens, part of their naturalization process has included going through a legal name change. Their reasons tend to vary but often include they wanted to adopt a more American sounding name or desired to shed a long name they had as a result of customs from their home countries. Some have also been misnamed when registering in a refugee camp and take this opportunity to correct that mistake. But occasionally I have come across a few clients who seem to throw caution to the wind and seize the moment to make a significant change in their lives by chosing a new name just because. I’m not sure what “Lucky’s” reason is but I’m hoping it’s the latter because it’s such an uplifting name. So the answer to “Lucky’s” question was yes, he can still legally change his name. The option to change a name during the naturalization process is easy and it is an option that is pretty much available until the judicial ceremony takes place. It is important to note that it does have to be a judicial ceremony though; in order for this legal formality to take place, a judge must be present.
There is often some confusion around whether or not children who derive citizenship from their naturalized parent can legally change their name when they apply for their citizenship certificate. Unfortunately, this isn’t an option. As I stated above, in order for a legal name change to be granted, a judge must be present. For the citizenship certificate applicant, there isn’t a swearing-in ceremony conducted by a judge because there is no judicial ceremony. It is a process that only involves a USCIS officer who reviews the N-600 citizenship certificate application then denies or approves it. Because of this, I greatly disappointed a newly naturalized client the other day who returned for help filing for citizenship certificates for her minor children (who derived citizenship through her) and who was brimming with excitement because they were finally going to be able to legally change their names.
This client’s teenaged sons had a relatively long last name (8 syllables, in fact) that was a result of their home country’s customs. They were looking forward to a much shorter, simpler name. Their mother had a difficult time accepting going through a legal name change wasn’t part of their process in deriving citizenship no matter how hard I tried to explain the reason (no judge is present in this process). It was a hard concept for her to accept but once she understood she returned home, discussed this with her sons and they decided keep their last name.
However, if they had wanted their names changed, they would have had the option of doing it like everyone else – through the court. Information regarding changing a name in NY can be found here for children and here for adults, as well as the name change application. The steps they would have had to follow are basically this:
- complete the downloaded application and take it to the County Clerk’s Office with $210 (the filing fee)
- wait for the Clerk’s Office to file paperwork with the court and contact them via mail that this step is complete
- place an ad in a newspapers publicizing the new name
- let the ad run its course and then provide the Clerk’s Office with an affidavit proving the ad has been run
- wait for a judge to review the application and affidavit to ensure everything has been done in accordance with NY law
This process is certainly more complicated than the one “Lucky” will be going through but it is certainly doable and should take between 1-2 months. Speaking of “Lucky,” I feel fortunate that I’ll be able to witness the steps it’ll take for his new name to become official; a name that is often associated with 4 leaf clovers, winning the lottery, and good karma. Since I’ll be accompanying him to his interview, I’ll be there when he signs a name change form and if all goes well, I’ll also witness him being called to the front of the court by his new name at the start of his oath ceremony. I have to admit, I love his spirit and how he is willing to seize the moment by choosing a name that speaks for itself. It’s also a name that’ll surely bring a smile to anyone’s face whose path he crosses the moment the name change becomes official, including the judge’s.
The perks that come with becoming a US citizen are coveted by many. Getting a US passport often tops the list, as well as being able to vote in US elections; not to mention no longer having the threat of deportation. But there are still an estimated 40% of people who might qualify for citizenship who do not choose to naturalize.
Whenever I meet with legal permanent residents (LPRs) who might be part of that 40% I usually ask them if they want to apply since we offer free citizenship services. For those who say no, the reasons are typical; “I need to learn more English,” or “I just renewed my green card” or more often, “I can’t afford the application fee.” But every now and then, someone responds, “I’m just not interested in being a US citizen.” Knowing how many undocumented immigrants would love the chance to be a US citizen, I’m always taken back by this indifference and wonder, “Why not?”
The majority of the clients we provide citizenship services to are pretty eager to go through the process. It intrigues me why people fall on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to naturalization. On the one end are people like Yang Chu who I wrote about in this blog who was excited to take the oath of allegiance. On the other end is someone like my friend, Trena, who has been a LPR for 20 years but is happy with her non-US citizen status. Hoping to gain some insight into LPRs like Trena – especially those who have been here long-term – I posed the ‘Why not?’ question to her. She answered, “It’s emotional” – an answer that certainly doesn’t qualify as indifference.
To begin shedding light on this emotional barrier, Trena started with….”The thing is, I’m a Brit, not an American. I’m a Brit who has happened to live in the US for 20 years. I have had that privilege. When you are a Brit the first thing an American hears is the accent so I almost feel like a fraud if I say I want to try to be American.” (As a side note, I had to have her repeat the word “fraud” 4 times and then spell it because of her accent). “I am a Brit in every way – I prefer soccer to baseball, the flavor of black currants more than grape and Cadbury’s over Hershey’s.”
Okay, that revealed some national identity barriers, but it didn’t address the emotional ones. But then she explained, “I feel it would be betraying my parents if I became American. I would somehow be rejecting them. If I became American I would be different than them. It has nothing to do with indifference.” That thought process captures how intertwined and complex national identity and emotional barriers can be and it certainly gives credence to her statement of “it’s emotional.” Those emotions she describes almost translates into her feeling as much allegiance (or even more) to her parents than she does for any flag. The national identity they bestowed to her and her loyalty to them explains the emotional barrier she has to naturalization. She also wants a part of that national identity to be passed on to her US born children. “I have always wanted to make sure that my kids know England and feel comfortable there too. Maybe that is also part of why I feel so torn about becoming a citizen.”
The reasons Trena had for emigrating also seem to play a part in her reluctance to apply for citizenship; it was never her intention to come to the US. She had married her US citizen spouse overseas but then agreed to come to the US when he found employment here. “There are people who make a more deliberate plan to come to the US. It wasn’t our plan; we only did it to work.” Since she has spent a lot of her adult life teaching international students and living in different parts of the world, she said she has a sense of belonging wherever she lives. “I don’t have to change my nationality to feel like that.”
Trena doesn’t give naturalizing a whole lot of thought but said she does feel the pull now and then to pursue it whenever the elections come around. “I want to vote. For many years I was detached from the social issues in this country, especially in the 90’s; issues like gun control and abortion were things I didn’t really relate to like an American does. But now I’ve changed. I want to vote in local elections – I especially missed not being able to vote for the school board this past year or for the sitting judge. I’m part of the community I live in and I really want to vote.”
Over the years, I have asked Trena to take the leap and become one of my citizenship clients at least a dozen times. I even asked her again during this interview. While she always good-naturedly turns me down, she did somewhat leave the door open. Referring to herself and a small group of British friends who also haven’t naturalized, she left me with, “We all know we’re going to do it.”
I recently attended the annual citizenship ceremony held at Cortland’s Supreme Court and witnessed several of our clients, including Yang Chu (pictured left), take the oath of allegiance. As I first arrived I was filled with a deep satisfaction when I saw how many of them were already seated in the rotunda waiting to take the final steps of their path to citizenship. And I felt grateful when I saw Yang Chu sitting front and center with her family because I knew what a great accomplishment it was for her to acquire the knowledge and language skills needed to naturalize. It was a beautiful ceremony and as it was wrapping up, I was reminded of the saying (or is it a psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor.
The process to becoming a US citizen can certainly be laborious and the culmination of that hard work, which is then celebrated at the naturalization ceremonies, does remind me of biting into a perfectly ripened piece of fruit. They are both meant to be savored and every aspect of them are enjoyable. The labor that is required to learn all of the knowledge needed to naturalize for Yang Chu and others like her – those who came to the US knowing very little English and who knew even less about American history, geography, and our political system – can be quite daunting. The bar for Yang Chu and other non-citizens to become naturalized is set quite high. But fortunately for her, the labor was divided and she had someone to share the burden with. Her tutor, Ginny Schumacher, or as Yang Chu often refers to her, “Number 1 Teacher,” made the goal of attaining citizenship achievable.
Over the years, Catholic Charities has partnered with Tompkins Learning Partners (TLP) to get clients ready for the citizenship test and Ginny is one of their tutors. Thanks to her, students can begin learning incredible amounts of information in order to pass the civics test and prove they can comprehend the material that is included in the citizenship application. Ginny, who has been a TLP tutor for 5 years, worked over 1 ½ years with Yang Chu to prepare her for the test and interview. At first they met weekly for 2 hour classes and then doubled their time together as her citizenship interview appointment drew closer.
When tutoring new students, Ginny begins by teaching them simple greetings, colors, numbers, and even has them compare their homeland flag to the US flag. While her lessons include phonics, vocabulary, syntax and conversation, Ginny says she also uses those early lessons to observe the students. “The whole time, I am trying to determine their readiness to come every week and their eagerness to become American.” She not only observed how Yang Chu was someone who genuinely wanted to be a US citizen but also saw her as someone who strived to be more “American” with her English.
For Yang Chu, learning the English required to pass the citizenship test was a huge undertaking. Even though she had attended ESL classes at TST BOCES prior to starting the citizenship prep classes she still had a steep learning curve. When asked to describe the learning process Yang Chu recalled how “many of the words I was learning looked similar; distinguishing one from another and memorizing all of them appeared to be a ‘mission impossible’ for quite a while.” But even though the material was difficult, Yang Chu still had Ginny, whose teaching skills and patience moved the process along. There was mutual respect between the teacher and student and definitely a strong bond. Ginny described Yang Chu as a “terrific student” and Yang Chu described Ginny as “the most amazing teacher I have encountered in my life.”
Once Yang Chu’s interview date arrived she traveled to Buffalo and Ginny stayed behind in Ithaca. But Ginny received a phone call before the day was over and was elated to hear Yang Chu’s news of: “Teacher! I pass! I pass!! Thank you, Number 1 Teacher!” She had just taken a giant leap forward on her path to citizenship; a path that could have been much more difficult if it hadn’t been for Ginny’s labor of love style of teaching.
The memory of Yang Chu being sworn in as a new citizen is something I will cherish a long time and it was somthing that still reminds me of the saying (psalm?) about enjoying the fruits of our labor. But it’s even more special when her daughter translated how excited Yang Chu is to cast her first vote in 2016 and how she feels “becoming a US citizen was one of the most prideful days in my life and a moment of immeasurable joy, honor, and privilege.”
*a special thanks to Yang Chu’s daughter, Hongnan, for helping out with translation*