Citizenship classes: All for a better life

MOUNTLAKE TERRACE — Thirteen years ago, a friend told Gilberto Ramirez about all the money he made working for a commercial fishing operation in Alaska.

Job opportunities were scarce in Ramirez’s native Mexico City and his friend’s story intrigued him. He told Ramirez the fishing company was based in Seattle.

“I asked him, ‘Can I go to Seattle with you?’ ” Ramirez says.

Arriving illegally in Washington, Ramirez applied for a job on a fishing boat in Alaska. He says he decided against it, however, after hearing stories about federal immigration officers raiding illegals in Alaska.

In their search for a better life, thousands of foreigners come the United States every year. Some arrive because they’ve been persecuted in their home countries; others come because they want a better job than they can find where they live. Ramirez is one of a small group of immigrants from Iran, Kenya, Southeast Asia and Canada who meet weekly for a free citizenship class at the Mountlake Terrace Library.

Their goal is the same: to pass the citizenship examination that gives them the right to vote and other rights accorded native-born Americans.

Instead of heading to Alaska, Ramirez found work at a Seattle Mexican restaurant. For years, he worked 16-hour days at two restaurants, then left to work in construction.

Nearly seven years ago, Ramirez married his English-as-a-second-language class assistant, a native of Guam. He got his green card, bought a home in Mountlake Terrace and is now legally allowed to work in the U.S.

Though transition to life in the United States was often rocky, he’s happy he took the leap of faith. Now Ramirez, 41, wants to become a U.S. citizen.

“We’re trying to find a better life,” he says.

Becoming a citizen can take years, navigating through the federal process. Newcomers to the U.S. first receive visas — authorization to be here for reasons that vary from education to employment.

To stay beyond the length of their visa, they can either apply for an extension or for a document known as a green card, which gives immigrants the legal right to live and work in the U.S.

A green card involves passing a medical examination and completing a detailed application for United States Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency that since 2001 has overseen immigration.

Path to citizenship

Getting the card, however, isn’t the same as becoming an American citizen.

That process, known as naturalization, involves passing an examination in which applicants are tested for their knowledge of civics and their ability to read, write and carry on a basic conversation in English. Applicants must correctly answer six out of 10 questions that federal examiners cull from a list of 100. It costs $675 to take the test.

“They might ask, ‘Do you know what deportation means?’ ” says Jim Hodges, citizenship project coordinator for the St. James Cathedral ESL program in Seattle. “They want to make sure the applicants fully understand the questions and they’re not just memorizing (them).”

Hodges is a native of Great Britain who arrived in the United States in 1994 on a student visa and eventually married an American.

He oversees citizenship classes through the Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle, including the 90-minute class in Mountlake Terrace, one of the few places in Snohomish County that prepares future citizens for the exam.

Chuck Brewer, 57, teaches the class.

“What is the supreme law of the land?” Brewer asks the students at one of the Thursday meetings.

“The Constitution,” a few of them reply.

“The United States was kind of a revolutionary idea,” he tells the students. “America was designed as a democracy where the people were going to rule themselves.”

Brewer, who runs his own computer sales and marketing business, says he volunteered to teach the class when it started last fall and was inspired by his wife, head librarian Rosie Brewer, who started a program teaching computer skills to beginners.

“I was very proud of what she was doing, teaching all these people skills they’d never had before,” he said. “When she mentioned they were looking for volunteers to teach citizenship, I thought, ‘I guess I can do that.’ ”

From Kenya to America

Pursuit of a better life led Ramirez’s classmate Norman Wanjao to Washington from his native Kenya more than seven years ago.

For several years, Wanjao, 50, traveled back and forth between Nairobi and Seattle, searching for work before settling in Shoreline in 2008. Today, Wanjao works at Home Depot in Shoreline and dreams about starting his own business.

Wanjao, who has a green card, says he has an economics degree from the University of the Punjab in Chandigarh, India. He’d like to start his own export business, selling construction and other heavy equipment.

“That’s the area I would prefer — business,” says Wanjao, who did marketing for an insurance company when he lived in Kenya.

He told immigration officials when he arrived that his goal was to start a business.

“But when I came, I found things were very difficult,” he says.

He’s adjusted to life in the United States and says doors are open to those who are willing to work hard.

“No doubt, every place has new things you have to learn, even the fact that you have to learn to drive on the other side of the road,” he says.

Chona Dormaier sought a better life, too.

The 44-year-old native of the Philippines met her husband, Albert Dormaier, online. After a period of courtship, in which Albert spent time in the Philippines, the two were married in the U.S. in 2004.

A Marysville resident and one of Brewer’s students, Dormaier says she is hopeful her 20-year-old daughter can follow her here and settle down as well.

Life in the Philippines is hard for her family, she says.

“I want to become an American citizen because I want my kids to live here,” says Dormaier, who comes from a family of nine children. “Most of the kids in the Philippines, they marry early. I want them to finish their studies and have a decent job.”

She has a full-time job at Goodwill in Marysville and works on-call as a custodian for the Marysville School District.

“I’m not looking to become rich but for my life to become happy,” she says.

Oscar Halpert: 425-339-3429,

Find a class

Where to find citizenship classes in Snohomish County:

Everett Community College

Multicultural Center, 11627 Airport Road, Room F

Free if already registered for other classes. $25 if not.

Info: 425-388-9291.

Familias Unidas

The nonprofit offers free citizenship classes from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays at 6315 Fleming St., Suite B, Everett.

Info: 425-513-2880.

Mountlake Terrace Library

The library, 23300 58th Ave. W., offers free citizenship classes from 6 to 9 p.m. Thursdays.

Info: 425-776-8722.

Try the test

Here are some questions that could be part of the civics portion of the exam to become an American citizen:


1. What do we call the first 10 amendments to the Constitution?

2. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?

3. How many amendments does the Constitution have?


1. The Bill of Rights

2. Speech, assembly, religion, press, petition the government

3. 27

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