By Steve Neill, Of The Catholic Virginian
The right to U.S. citizenship is a treasured goal of most immigrants to our country.
It is often a hard goal to achieve and the Sacred Heart Center in Richmond is helping many longtime immigrants reach that goal.
Immigrants must first be living in the United States and have a Green Card which is a prerequisite to citizenship.The Green Card gives holders authorization for permanent resident status which allows individuals to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis.
The biggest hurdle to citizenship or naturalization is taking a test which has four components. There is a civics test, speaking test, reading test and a writing test in which prospective American citizens must accurately answer questions which can range from geography to the balance of power in the federal government. The questions can also deal with geography, United States history and the federal government. And the test is given in English.
“What’s interesting to me is that most of the students are not close to being ready to take the exam,” said Scott Hansen, a bank officer who is the volunteer teacher in the new evening class which started Jan. 30.
The opening night class drew 10 students. “They have to pay a fee just to submit their application,” Mr. Hansen continued. “There is a lot of red tape, including fingerprints and a lot of questions which must be answered.” The classes at Sacred Heart Center are conducted in English and run for a period of 12 weeks.
Why is United States citizenship so important, The Catholic Virginian asked the students.
“This is a beautiful country and I need to be a citizen to give back, to return,” said Jose Ordinalo, originally from Peru. He will be 47 on Feb. 22 and has been in the U.S. 24 years. He works as an Uber and lift driver.
“This country has given me a lot and I want to help other people,” he added.
It is not unusual for students in the citizenship class to have lived in the United States for more than 10 years or even longer.
“The average of students I have taught have been in the United States for 15 years,” said Mr. Hansen, a bank officer for the past 30 years.
“We meet twice a week from 6 to 8,” he continued. “We go over the lessons and they are encouraged to take notes. Then we go over the answers as a class.”
Most of the students at Sacred Heart Center in the citizenship class are Hispanic. Many have children who are already American citizens since they were born in this country. Some even have grandchildren who are second generation Americans since one or both their parents were born in the United States.
“I want to be part of this country because there is opportunity for my four children,” said Ruth Ribero Garcia, an immigrant from Colombia.
Two of her three sons, her daughter and three grandchildren are already American citizens.
Maria Elena Monterrosa, who was born in El Salvador, came to the United States 12 years ago. Her two daughters, a son and three grandchildren are American citizens.
While the classes are conducted in English, not all students have the same grasp of the English language. Mr. Hansen attempts to put them at ease.
“If they don’t have a good reasonable command of English, it is difficult for them to succeed,” Mr. Hansen said. “I want them to succeed, that’s our goal.”
Upon completion of the 12-week series of classes, not all are ready to take the citizenship exam. Some wait more than a year to even apply for taking the test. And it is not unusual for applicants to fail the test the first time.
The test is difficult for many of the students. Mr. Hansen says realistically a large number of Americans born in the United States might not be able to answer some of the questions.
“This class covers geography, the American Constitution, the different branches of government and how the government works,” Mr. Hansen said.
“The test itself has 10 questions, but students have no knowledge of which 10 questions will be asked,” he explained, adding that there are 100 questions with which they need to be familiar.
As an example, one question might be “Name a Native American tribe.”
After the classes have ended some students may wait a year or more to take the test for naturalization, Mr. Hansen said.
If an individual fails the test, he or she is allowed to retake the test a second time and only needs to be retested on the portion of the test they answered incorrectly.
Mr. Hansen encourages the students to create flash cards to help them remember the answers. It also helps encourage friendly competition among the students, many of whom have never met one another before they come to class.
While not all achieve their path to U.S. citizenship the first time they take the test, they are encouraged to press on and not be discouraged. They can try again.
“We had one former student who came in one of our classes and proudly held up her certificate of citizenship to all of us,” Mr. Hansen said. “That really boosted their spirits.”