More immigrants seek citizenship as election stokes debate

  • By Evan Marczynski Skagit Valley Herald
  • Wednesday, June 8, 2016 1:28pm
  • Local News

MOUNT VERNON — The first question posed to 23-year-old Rosa Aide Diaz Rodriguez during her U.S. naturalization test was an easy one, she said.

A U.S. immigration official administering the test wanted Rodriguez to define a constitutional amendment, the Skagit Valley Herald reported.

Rodriguez knew the answer. But she was flustered after driving that morning with her mother and stepsister from her parents’ home in Anacortes to a federal immigration office in Seattle, then waiting for about an hour before her test, she said.

She fumbled for a moment, then began reciting everything she could remember about amendments.

“I was really nervous, and I forgot the question for a second,” said Rodriguez, who lives in Mount Vernon. “After that, I was like ‘OK, I need to focus.”’

Rodriguez answered correctly — an amendment is an addition to the Constitution — and went on to ace the 10-question test.

This year, tens of thousands of foreign-born residents in the U.S. are seeking or are expected to seek naturalization, the process where they attain U.S. citizenship by fulfilling requirements set by Congress.

U.S. immigration officials say more people have begun seeking citizenship across the country at a time when immigration has become a hot topic in American politics and the current presidential campaign.

Nationwide, naturalization applications were up more than 14 percent in the last six months of 2015 compared with the same period in 2014, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

It’s difficult to determine exactly how many Skagit County residents apply for naturalization because the federal government does not track data at the county level, said Sharon Rummery, an agency spokeswoman.

The government does keep a statewide tally, and Washington’s numbers have increased at the same rate reported nationwide.

In the last six months of 2015, immigration offices in Seattle, Spokane and Yakima received 8,607 applications for naturalization, up from about 7,500 during the same time in 2014, according to federal immigration data.

Nearly 9 million legal permanent residents living in the U.S. are eligible to become citizens, and of those, about 4 million are Hispanic, according to The Associated Press.

To qualify, an applicant must have been in the U.S. for at least five years, complete a 21-page application, get fingerprinted, pass a civics and English exam and pay about $700 in fees.

Immigration law uncertainty

After Rodriguez made it through her questions, she joined 150 others who had passed the test for a ceremony where they recited the U.S. Oath of Allegiance, the Pledge of Allegiance and then together sang the Star-Spangled Banner, she said.

And with that, they became U.S. citizens.

For Rodriguez, the day was the final step in gaining her citizenship after arriving in Skagit County from Mexico in 2005 at age 13. She initially stayed in the U.S. on a visa before acquiring a green card.

Rodriguez said she was inspired to seek citizenship in part due to stalled action in Congress on President Barrack Obama’s proposed overhaul to the nation’s immigration system.

She said she worries about how immigration policy might change depending on the outcome of November’s election. That worry was shared by some of the others who took their naturalization tests the same day she did in Seattle, she said.

Rodriguez said as she waited for her test to begin, she sat between a woman from India and another from El Salvador. Both told her they wanted to become citizens now because of the uncertain future of immigration law.

“Everybody seems to be taking the test now because of that,” Rodriguez said.

Some immigrant advocates and lawmakers attribute the increased interest in citizenship to the rise of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, who has said that if elected in November, he will deport the estimated 11 million people living in the U.S. illegally.

Trump also has vowed to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Immigrant-rights supporters say Trump’s rhetoric is driving many foreign-born residents to seek U.S. citizenship.

“There is fear of a Trump presidency,” Maria Ponce of iAmerica Action, a Washington, D.C.-based immigrant-rights group, told the AP.

“A huge accomplishment”

In addition to requirements for English language proficiency in reading, writing and speaking, there are 100 possible civics questions a person might be asked when taking the test.

Applicants must correctly answer six of the 10 questions they are given in order to pass.

Questions can vary in scope. Applicants may be asked to name their congressional representatives or the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, or to explain what function members of the president’s cabinet serve.

Rummery of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services said 91 percent of those who take the test pass on their first try, and those who don’t are given a second opportunity.

Rodriguez said she had help and encouragement from her mother, Lupita Boomer, who earned her U.S. citizenship about a month before her daughter.

Rodriguez said her mother received help from a citizenship prep class offered at Seattle Goodwill’s Mount Vernon Job Training and Education Center, which recently moved to the 200 block of East College Way.

Daniel Graham, the center’s site manager, said the eight-week prep class, which meets two evenings per week, gives people a chance to prepare for their naturalization tests in a participatory atmosphere.

A new class is scheduled to start June 6, and Graham said several seats remain open.

Participants take pop quizzes, watch videos and read newspaper articles that cover some of the civics-related topics that test questions tend to be based upon, he said.

Graham said not all people who enroll in the class go on to attain citizenship; some enroll to practice their English skills.

Last year, 15 people who completed a prep class later became U.S. citizens. So far this year, 10 have done so, and at that rate, as many as 24 people could do so by the end of 2016, he said.

Completing naturalization is a significant undertaking for those in the class, some of whom return to the center afterward to celebrate their new citizenship with their instructors, Graham said.

“It’s always just a huge accomplishment for them,” he said.

For some, attaining citizenship is a point of pride and a validation of their decision to come the U.S., a country that was built on immigration, Graham said.

His wife’s parents, who came to the U.S. from India, attained their citizenship last year, Graham said.

After passing their naturalization tests, they opted to hold off on taking their oaths of allegiance until they could participate in the mass ceremony held each July 4 at Seattle Center. There, they joined several hundred others to be officially granted citizenship.

Graham said he believes the fact that so many are willing to go through the process shows the U.S. remains a desirable location for immigrants.

“We’re really proud that this part of our mission,” Graham said of the classes.

Now a U.S. citizen

Having completed the naturalization process, Rodriguez said she plans to continue her education and prepare for a career, which she expects will be in health care.

She’s enrolled in Skagit Valley College’s pre-nursing program and has worked the past two years at Sea Mar Community Health Centers promoting health education in the migrant farmworker community.

Rodriguez is also part of a Chi Alpha International ministry at the college that works with international students and helps them adjust to life in the U.S.

Rodriguez said she expects her change of status to a naturalized citizen will take some time to get used to, but she now has peace of mind.

She said it occasionally feels strange to no longer have her green card, which she was required to give back to immigration officials after earning her citizenship.

But she said she looks forward to her future, and she is especially excited to vote in this year’s election.

“It feels good to be a citizen able to have a say in who becomes president,” she said.


Information from: Skagit Valley Herald,

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