This story was written for a reporting class at the University of Oregon and revised with instructor feedback.
Behind the citizenship
“Where is the Statue of Liberty?”
“How many U.S. Senators are there?”
Paulina Padilla paused. It was 6:30 p.m., and she was seated in her normal chair on the third-floor classroom of Ebbert United Methodist Church in Springfield, Oregon. Even though it was just practice, the pressure of answering correctly felt real. “50 … No, no wait, 100.”
“What is one promise you make when you become a United States citizen?”
Padilla didn’t have to think about this one. “To be loyal to the United States and defend the Constitution.” She sat back and straightened out her skirt. Her housekeeper uniform was wrinkled. She had spent the day cleaning 24 rooms at the hotel. But that was insignificant compared to the work she was putting in at Downtown Language’s Citizenship class.
Originally from Oaxaca, Mexico, Padilla wants to be able to vote in the next U.S. Presidential election. Because of this desire to make her voice heard, for the past five weeks she has made a commitment to attend the class on Tuesday evenings after her shift.
“After I take the test, I want to change jobs,” Padilla said. “It’s my promise to myself.”
According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there are approximately 6 million applicants for naturalization every year. Between April 1 and June 30 in 2017, the country approved 204,931 cases for U.S. citizenship, with the state of Oregon approving 1,996 of these cases. In time, Padilla and the rest of the students in the Downtown Language’s Citizenship class hope to add themselves to those numbers.
The change in status from a lawful permanent resident to an official citizen grants these immigrants with the same constitutional rights that all American-born citizens have. Once a U.S. citizen, a person receives: the right to vote within, the ability to bring family members into the country, the ability to grant citizenship to children, the ability to travel with a U.S. passport and the eligibility for Federal jobs and campaigning for elected official positions.
With the new political climate that evolved within the country during the past year, these benefits have become more desirable than ever, increasing the motivation of these permanent residents to earn citizenship. In fact, the 204,931 applicants that earned citizenship last year, was the highest number of approved immigrants during the second fiscal quarter the country has seen in the last three years. The idea of passing the citizenship test holds heavy pressure on these immigrants, from wanting constitutional rights to battling their fear of deportation.
“Right after Trump was elected there was a huge increase, but that has died down now,” said Raquel Hecht, a partner and immigration attorney at Hecht & Norman immigration attorneys in Eugene, Ore. “They [permanent residents] were worried. They didn’t want to have a problem.”
“Who makes federal laws?”
Padilla didn’t know this one. She resisted the temptation to look at her notes. She looked up at her teacher, Carlos Santana, for help. He read the question again.
“Who makes federal laws?”
“The president?” Padilla responded. She knew it was wrong.
“Congress. Congress makes federal laws,” Santana said.
Santana took a deep breath and moved to the next student. He knows all the answers to these questions. His job is to know them. But he said he still feels empathy whenever a student gets one wrong, for he was once in their shoes.
In 1989, when he was 20 years old, Santana moved from Jalisco, Mexico, to Medford, Oregon. In 2005, he became a citizen of the United States with the hopes of bringing his parents up from Mexico. To prepare himself for his naturalization, he took the Downtown Languages citizenship class twice.
Three years after earning citizenship, Santana became the teacher of the class and has led it for the past 10 years.
“I don’t feel like it’s work,” Santana said. “I really enjoy being here. I was one of them. I learned English when I was an adult so I know how frustrating it is. That’s why I feel I have a lot of patience. If someone doesn’t know how to read or write a sentence, I understand. I let them know that it is going to take time.”
The class is open to anyone wanting to become a U.S. citizen. Offered multiple times throughout the year and costing $35. Students attend the class once a week over the course of five weeks. Santana leads students through sections of the citizenship civic questions and uses games to keep them motivated. Through weekly homework, they practice speaking, writing and reading in English. In the fifth and final class, students go through a mock citizenship interview, and Santana lets them know if they are ready for the real thing.
Carmen Archuleta, a student in Santana’s class, got 28 questions (out of 75) correct during the night’s game. The answers came easy to her as she’s been studying since June and this is her second run through the course. She currently plays a more important game outside of class, the waiting game.
To become a U.S. citizen there are many vital steps, including: filling out documents, getting one’s fingerprint and photo taken, background checks, waiting and then ultimately taking the test. For the average applicant, after submitting documentation it can take three to six months to receive a scheduled naturalization date.
“I check my email every day,” Archuleta said. The 47-year-old mother of two submitted her naturalization application in June and is waiting to hear back with the time of her interview. She’s put so much time into learning the material for the test because to her, earning citizenship means getting to bring her mother up from Mexico to live with her in the States. “I think it will be soon…It scares me because I don’t know when.”
American TV shows have a history of portraying the citizenship process in a humorous manner. For example, in the episode titled, “A Legal Matter” in That ‘70s Show, Fez (a documented immigrant) attempts to earn his citizenship. To prepare for the test, Red gives him lessons in what he sees as American history through his experience fighting in the Vietnam war and with his opinions of the Green Bay Packers. However, when Fez goes to take the test, all he has to do to earn citizenship is confirm that he is married and provide a form of identification.
Such representation is untrue to the realistic preparation and the actual hardships immigrants face as they apply for citizenship.
“The House of Representatives has how many voting members?” Santana said.
“Cuatrocientos treinta y cinco.” Mayra Reyes, another student in the class, responded.
“Yes, but English please.”
Reyes took a long pause. Her confidence in knowing the answer shattered as she was confronted with the fact she didn’t know the English. Like Padilla, she wants to earn citizenship to be able to vote and to also look for a better job.
For most students, the hardest part of preparing for the citizenship test is learning English. Many of these people come from countries where English is not the primary language. After living in America for a handful of years as a permanent resident, immigrants find that reading and hearing English is often a lot easier than speaking and correctly pronouncing the words. Five years of living in a place is a short amount of time to become properly fluent in a new language.
Learning a country’s native language is a common requirement among naturalization processes. In fact, most countries require varying fluency levels of their language for citizenship to be granted as tests are often given in the country’s language, instead of that of the applicant’s.
However, one in every five U.S. residents speak a foreign language. Data released in 2013 from the Census Bureau shows how the numbers of people who spoke a language other than English, at home was at an all-time high after increasing by 2.2 million people from 2010.
When there is such a variety of people speaking an array of languages, many applicants have a hard time committing themselves to practicing English for the test.
“A lot of people qualify to become a U.S. Citizen,” Santana said. “But, because they have limited English, they are afraid to even take a class, because they don’t dare to try. They are afraid that they are going to fail.”
To some, earning citizenship means living without fear, it means living with constitutional rights and chasing after a better life. It means belonging. This sense of anew, this feeling of having a place to call home, the ability to be with family without fear is what drives these immigrants through the obstacles, such as language barriers, as they venture through the citizenship process in attempt to achieve this accomplishment.
Padilla was last to complete the mock interview in the class.
“Welcome, Ms. Padilla.” Santana said. “Do you have a passport?”
Padilla looked confident as she gave him the slip of paper and began the test. She flew through the civic questions, missing only two before she got six correct and moved on.
“Please write the sentence ‘We have 100 senators,’” Santana said as he gave Padilla a pencil and a sheet of paper.
She took her time writing before handing the paper back to Santana. He intensively looked over it. After some time, he asked her to sign and print her name on the paper.
“Congratulations, you passed,” Santana said, remaining professional.
Even though it was not the real thing, Padilla smiled.