2017-05-04 / Front Page

Learning About Their Land of the Free and Home of the Brave

By James Merolla

Nancy, Elmer and Carlos ponder their answer to a question about the U.S. government posed by instructor Dan Donaghue. (Photo by James Merolla) Nancy, Elmer and Carlos ponder their answer to a question about the U.S. government posed by instructor Dan Donaghue. (Photo by James Merolla) Over the past few months, about a dozen green card holders have been studying two nights a week to become American citizens through the Newport Community School’s Aquidneck Island Adult Learning Center program, held at Thompson Middle School. By becoming citizens, they will have their voices heard in the next election, by casting their first votes as Americans.

The process has many steps, with many forms to be completed, and requires intensive study.

With talks of border walls, restricted visas, deportation and travel bans in the national news, these students are taking action to stay in their adopted land.

There is 36-year-old Nancy from Guatemala, who moved here when she was nine. “I grew up in Newport and Middletown and always put [citizenship] off. I always wanted to be a citizen,” she said.

Nancy works in social services for a local non-profit. “Not being able to vote [has become] important. And I don’t plan to go back to my country. I have two children here,” she said.

One of her classmates is her husband, Carlos, also from Guatemala, who came to the U.S. in 1991. “I was raised on Long Island,” he said. “I was nine or 10 when I came here. I went to school, did what I had to do, met my wife, and came to Rhode Island to become a construction worker. Now, I want citizenship [for the same reason as the others do: to vote out] Donald Trump.”

Carlos is also motivated by the plight of his older sister, who was asked to leave the U.S. and apply for Legal Permanent Residency (LPR) status. “When she missed that time frame, automatically she lost everything,” he said. “If you have no papers, you can’t work, you can’t have insurance, a vehicle, a license. All of that she had, and it was taken from her. Now, she is trying to work on it, but basically you have to leave the country before you can start up again.”

At Carlos’ elbow is Elmer, from El Salvador, who was forced out of the country. Elmer also came to the U.S. at nine, and is now married to Nancy’s cousin. He said that older people have visas now because they paid for them. At nine he came here illegally. “I can go back, but can’t come back,” he said. “I want to do this first to make sure I’m not going to [be forced to] leave.”

He was previously deported for 11 months and went to the emO.K., your passport is ready, your visa is ready.’ They can deny you. They can say no for any reason. And you can stay [there] for 10 years.”

Elmer worked hard in the U.S. and paid his taxes every year. After all, work was the reason he came here. “Paying those taxes helped a lot,” he said. “They always tell you that all the Latino community doesn’t pay taxes. [They are] here illegally and don’t pay taxes. But that’s not true. In my country, it’s hard to make a living. You get $5 on a farm for a full day’s work.”

Their teacher, Dan Donaghue from Jamestown, knows their stories well. He is a former member of the Peace Corps and has volunteered with the International Institute of R.I., working with Burmese and Bhutanese Nepali political refugees. For 25 years, he has also worked with the U.S. State Department and Save the Children in refugee assistance and poverty alleviation programming.

“My job was to set up an education system in the refugee camps,” he said. “I managed camps there and in Thailand.” Donaghue now uses these social services skills to transition foreign nationals into citizenship, via education.

To earn American citizenship, Donaghue’s Newport students, the prospective citizens, must pass an interview with a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services employee and correctly answer six of 10 questions that will be randomly selected from a list of 100. Generally, the questions focus on U.S. history, government and civics. But they could also concern legislative bodies, wars, policy, the Emancipation Proclamation, the separation of governmental powers and other areas.

“We review questions and that guides the discussion,” said Donaghue.

Natalie, a French woman who has been in the U.S. for 10 years, has concerns about the direction of the American government. “I want to become an American citizen because of the changes in government . I am worried,” she said. “… Citizenship is the dream come true, right?” she said. “Live the dream.”

The Steps to Citizenship

Becoming a citizen may take years, and in addition to intensive studies in American history, the process requires that applicants file and submit a Form N-400 and accompanying forms. There are at least 10 steps in the process, at considerable cost.

The first step is to have one’s eligibility determined, then to take passport style photos, fill in and submit all forms, complete a thorough interview, study for and then pass a test about the United States and its history. Additional evidence and documentation may be required, especially if your previous status is at issue.

Finally, applicants must attend all scheduled interviews assigned by appointment letter.

Rhode Island schedules interviews and tests at least once a month, and sometimes twice a month, in Johnston.

Once an applicant has taken the test, he or she will receive notice of having passed and being qualified, or of needing to try again. If qualified for citizenship, applicants will then receive a notice to take the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony with date, time and location of that event. This Oath of Allegiance, once taken, makes one an official citizen of the United States.

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