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Citizenship in a Complex Nation

Why do you want to be a US Citizen?

It’s a question I’ve had to ask, and answer, quite a lot since I started teaching citizenship preparation classes four years ago. When I stepped in front of my first class of New Americans, I was extremely worried that the answer might be I don’t! After all, we live in a country with constantly shifting sentiment on new arrivals and a checkered history in foreign policy.

Questions came rapid-fire as I talked about the first Thanksgiving: “Were all these states here when Indians lived here? What happened to the Indians?” Explaining the genocide was slightly awkward, but the class took it in stride. “Are there Indians left?” someone asked. Yes, I told them, we still have American Indians, and in fact you might be asked to name one tribe on your citizenship exam. I showed them a list of Indian tribes. “I’ll remember Blackfeet by thinking about getting my feet dirty,” a Nepali woman said with a smile. “I’ll remember Apache by thinking about the helicopters,” an Iraqi man announced.

That lesson marked the beginning of an important realization for me: I did not have to teach my students that American history – and America itself – is complicated; they already knew. Yet nothing could shake their patriotism, or change their minds about wanting to live here. They loved this country, warts and all. Why do you want to be a US citizen? I asked. I heard, because I’m stateless and I want to belong. Because I never could go to school until I got here. Because I grew up in a world without police officers, and I love having help around.

Meanwhile, my students’ curiosity pushed me to delve into topics outside of the official citizenship curriculum. We talked about Reconstruction and segregation. A woman, who had lost her home to state-sponsored ethnic cleansing, asked me, “But, could black and white people talk to each other? Could they be friends?” “Why did they let black men vote, but not black women? Could white women vote?” an Iraqi man asked. Students wanted to know:

  • Teacher, why are there so many men and no women on this citizenship test? I started to add in stories of Abigail Adams and Harriet Tubman.
  • I think my boss has a gun at work. Is he allowed because he is a rich man? I distributed an outline of recent gun-control debates.
  • I had to call an ambulance once, and the police came too. Why was that? We talked about the jobs of police officers, and read palm cards about when you should or shouldn’t open the door to police.
  • What do Democrats and Republicans want? I boiled down the philosophical differences and drew tables on the board outlining party platforms.
  • Does one party ever assassinate the other’s candidate? No, I said, the United States will never give up on peaceful transitions of power.
  • Why do they call these the midterm elections? Who is going to be president next? “We will see in 2016,” I said. “Some of you will have a chance to vote for him or her!”

In 2015, I started managing volunteer-led citizenship preparation programs at New York Cares. By then, the primary campaigns had already begun. Why do you want to be a US Citizen? I asked, and the answer was, so I can vote! New York Cares volunteers mobilized to work with immigrants on the twenty-page application, help low-income applicants get fee waivers, and drill clients on civics trivia and vocabulary for their interviews. There were so many new applicants, in fact, that processing times stretched out to seven months.

Despite the delays, our students’ enthusiasm about politics steadily increased. They watched the news and asked about the meaning of “delegate” and “convention.” Volunteers worked to explain the Electoral College. As Congress delayed the confirmation of a Supreme Court nominee, students asked why Congress votes on presidential choices in the first place. Tutors introduced the idea of checks and balances. Clients asked for copies of the Constitution – I had to order over 500. Unprompted, our students shared who they would vote for if they could vote.

To these excited, curious, politically engaged future US citizens, President Trump’s victory in November resulted in a lot of uncertainty. The day after the election, my programs were full of questions. In the Bronx, a young woman asked me, “I know people who voted for Trump, like even Muslims! Why would they do that?” In Queens, I heard from program administrators, most of them immigrants themselves: Would their agencies lose funding? Or be forced to cut international assistance programs? Would the next head of USCIS raise fees or encourage rejection of more applications?

At the same time, though, I was also reminded that immigrants still believe in this country. “I cried seeing a woman lose,” one woman admitted, “But the democracy will survive.” A Queens man mused, “Every president is restricted by the status quo. We’ll have to take this one day at a time.”

Providing citizenship services has gotten more complicated since the election. The average number of applications received by our regional office has doubled from 6,000 to 12,000. The wait time for an interview is now an incredible 8 months. We’ve stepped up our volunteer training and resources to meet demand. A representative of Citizenship & Immigration Service came to our office to answer volunteer questions: everything from “how can a person prepare to make small talk at their interview” to “does marrying a citizen make you a citizen automatically?” Our clients are asking us harder questions than ever: “Why is the president banning my relatives from coming to this country? Will we all have to leave? What about my family that’s still trapped in Syria?” I launched a weekly newsletter to update our volunteers on major developments in court cases and political debates. I had our volunteers distribute phone numbers for legal services.

Despite the political complications, when I ask “why do you want to be a US Citizen?” I’ve still never heard, “I don’t!” Now I’m hearing, “So I can stay here” or “So I can vote next time.

My favorite answer so far has been “To do important work, and save the country.

Claire Marinello's picture
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