‘Get in line’

En Español

Becoming American takes more than an application. The process is long
and arduous, and it comes with struggles in and between each step.

Stories and photos by Chloe Jones, Cronkite News

 

 

PHOENIX – When immigrants talk about becoming U.S. citizens, they often are told, “Get in line.” The federal government offers a 10-step guide for prospective citizens that could be regarded as a way to get in line. But the line is not always straight. For example, a person who marries a U.S. citizen doesn’t need to wait as long to qualify for citizenship as someone who came into the country on a work visa. There are also personal challenges and limitations that come with each step and could cause one’s citizenship application to take a left turn, hit the brakes and, at times, go back to the start line — or the end of the line.

You must have a green card


To be eligible to apply for citizenship, an immigrant must either be a legal permanent resident with a green card for five years or married to a U.S. citizen for three years. A green card sometimes takes more than a year to acquire.

You must speak English


For many, learning English is the most difficult part of the process, especially if the person is an adult or their first language is not a Romance language.

You must know how government works


The difficulty of learning civics goes hand in hand with that of learning English. Although it may be easy to memorize answers, interviewers often ask prospective citizens to define some of the words they’ve used in their answers and explain why they gave a certain answer, making it harder for someone whose first language isn’t English to articulate their thoughts.

You must complete a long form


The N-400 is a 20-page form that every eligible immigrant must file to apply for citizenship. As of 2019, the application fee was $725, a hefty expense for many prospective citizens.

On top of that, many immigrants hire lawyers to help them fill out the form because they don’t understand the legal language it contains.

You must have money


To get the $725 application fee waived or decreased, a prospective citizen must meet or be below the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guidelines. This fee can be difficult for immigrants who do not meet these guidelines, but still can’t afford it.

In November, the Trump administration proposed raising the application fee to $1,170 next year and end a program that grants reduced fees for low-income applicants.

You must be fingerprinted


The cost of fingerprinting is included in the $725 citizenship application fee, but prospective citizens must pay for passport photos. They must also bring the paperwork submitted with their green card application, as well as a copy of their green card, to their citizenship interview.

You must pass your interview


The interview makes or breaks a prospective citizen’s journey. Language skills are tested and the civics test is administered. It’s also where immigrants have to answer questions about some of the personal information provided on their N-400 forms, such as work history and education background. Depending on the interviewer, the process can be pleasant or stressful. Applicants learn by the end of their interview if their citizenship applications have been approved – or denied.

You must pledge the Oath of Allegiance


The citizenship ceremony is scheduled within 30 days of a successful interview. This day makes the long, arduous and costly naturalization process worth it. The ceremony usually takes place at a federal courthouse, but it sometimes occurs in special locations, such as the Grand Canyon and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Right after the ceremony, the new citizens can register to vote through various organizations set up nearby.

Conclusion


Naturalized U.S. citizens enjoy the same rights that native-born citizens have except for one: They can’t run for president or vice president of the United States.

“I know a lot of you are crying happy tears, but some of you may also be crying some sad tears,” said U.S. District Court Judge Douglas L. Rayes at a naturalization ceremony on September 27. “Because you represent your family members in trying to become US citizens in the past, but were not successful. I congratulate every single one of you.”

You must have a green card


Felipe Ochoz, 41, Colombia

College students in the United States are often stressed about finding a job after graduation.

Felipe Ochoa was also in a race against time.

He arrived in the United States from Colombia in 1997, through an exchange program sponsored by the Rotary Club, and got his undergraduate degree at Michigan Tech University. Then, he came to Arizona State University to pursue a master’s degree in engineering. He said job opportunities for engineering in the United States are much more abundant than they are in Colombia.

He got a special work visa known as Optional Practical Training, allowing him to work in the United States for one year after graduate school. But because he wanted to stay longer, Ochoa had to find an employer who would agree to sponsor him for a green card.

That’s where his frustrations began.

Ochoa said he sent countless job applications that went unanswered or were shot down after he mentioned the green card sponsorship. And when he got an offer, it was only for him to work until his year on the training visa was up.

“The clock starts ticking and you start getting more and more worried, but it’s all about being persistent,” he said.

Six months after the countdown began, Ochoa finally found the job he had been looking for. The technology company Intel, which has two locations in Chandler, Arizona, hired him to work in its engineering and technology development department.

Ochoa applied to become a citizen as soon as he was eligible, in 2012, five years after receiving his green card.

As a U.S. citizen, he said, “I can work, live and have a prosperous future.”

You must speak English


Arberio Cabrera Rodriguez, 64, Cuba

Arberio Cabrera Rodriguez was 64 when he came to the United States as a political refugee from Cuba in 2013. He spoke no English.

He had wanted to become a U.S. citizen since the day he arrived in the country. Cabrera Rodriguez still loves Cuba, but he doesn’t agree with its current politics.

He had money to pay for the U.S. citizenship application, and someone to help him with paperwork, he said. The problem was that he didn’t know English, so he set out to work on that. He told his Spanish-speaking friends to only speak to him in English. He read books and newspapers in English. He even changed the language on his smartphone to English.

“I think the most important teacher was myself,” said Cabrera Rodriguez, who had worked in Cuba as an engineer while also studying engineering. “So I was my special teacher for myself for my career, and my English is the same.”

Cabrera Rodriguez now can read and speak English, but writing is still a challenge. In his citizenship interview, he said, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer was patient and gave him extra time during the written portion of the test.

He became a U.S. citizen Oct. 4 at the Sandra Day O’Connor U.S. Courthouse in Phoenix.

In a few months, he plans to join his daughter in Houston. He also hopes to sponsor his son and grandchild, who still live in Cuba, to live with him in the United States.

“I was dreaming to be a United States citizen,” he said, “and, oh man, I'm 70 – you know? So, I must make my life in this country with all the time that I can live.”

You must know how government works


Elena Romero, 55, Mexico

Elena Romero came to Phoenix from Sinaloa in 2011 on a tourist visa. Her daughter, a U.S. citizen, helped her get a green card two years later.

Now, Romero, 55, is ready to become a U.S. citizen.

Since August, she has been taking free citizenship classes at the Desert Sage Library in the Maryvale neighborhood in west Phoenix, which is heavily Hispanic, learning about U.S. civics and the citizenship application process while also working on her English.

“All of the benefits of voting, of being a citizen, paying taxes and working honorably, and all of the legal benefits, I like them all,” she said in Spanish; English is still a challenge to her. “That’s why I’d like to be a citizen of this country.”

She said she has been anxious about the changing immigration laws under President Donald Trump, so becoming a citizen feels more urgent.

“If I am a resident and then they want to take it away, take the green card away,” Romero said. “Citizenship gives you security, peace of mind and doing things as they should be done.”

She is planning to apply for citizenship before the end of the year. Until then, she said she will be studying civics and English for two hours every day so she can feel prepared for the test.

You must complete a long form


Mia Lan, 21, Myanmar

Say Say – a refugee from Myanmar who has adopted the name Mia Lan since coming to the United States – thought the letter she was opening would provide the date of her citizenship interview. Instead, she learned that the organization that last year had helped her complete the N-400 citizenship application form entered the wrong birthday.

To Lan, the irony is that she doesn’t really know when she was born and so never celebrates her birthday.

“Birthday means nothing to our parents, so they don't really know when we're actually born,” Lan said. When it came time to fill out a form in the refugee camp where they were living in Thailand, indicating the country where they would want to be resettled, “my mom just picked a date” – Sept. 29, 1998.

Lan informed the assisting organization about the letter she had received from federal immigration authorities and was assured the error would be corrected. But she later received a second letter telling her the date was still wrong, she said.

Lan hopes that when she shows up for her citizenship interview in November, she will be able to correct her birthday. If she can’t, she fears she’ll have to start the process all over again.

On paper, Lan is 21, although she believes she’s 19. Still, she’s excited about having a birthday to match her legal records with her new name to help her with her new identity as a U.S. citizen.

You must have money


Filomeno Pacheco Castillo, 51, Mexico

From the moment he became eligible, Filomeno Pacheco Castillo tried to save the $725 he would need to apply for U.S. citizenship. But just when he’d get close to having it all, an unexpected expense would come up.

He tapped the funds when his two children needed to see a doctor, clothes and shoes, or when his car broke down. Sometimes, the money went to paying the high electricity bills that accompany the Arizona heat, which he said could sometimes be as high as $400.

Castillo arrived in Arizona on a work visa in the 1990s, and in four years, he got his green card.

His kids, who were born in the U.S. and now are in their 20s, sponsored him and helped him navigate all the steps to become a citizen. He enrolled in English classes at Rio Salado Community College and learned about civics, all while again trying to save up the $725.

On Oct. 11, 18 years after he became eligible to apply, Castillo finally became a U.S. citizen, along with 67 other immigrants.

“It’s something like, ‘I want to do it,’ and I’ve waited too long and the door opened for me and I got the money, and my English is better, and people helped me apply, and thank God, everything is good,” he said after the naturalization ceremony in U.S. District Court in Phoenix.

You must be fingerprinted


Celia Holguin De Sias, 56, Mexico

Like many immigrants, Celia Holguin De Sias knew she had to get a green card before she became a U.S. citizen. She tried twice, but things didn’t go as planned.

De Sias arrived in the United States in the 1980s. Her husband, who worked on a farm labor camp, qualified for amnesty under the Reagan administration’s 1986 Immigration and Reform Act, but the woman who ran the camp incorrectly filled out the amnesty paperwork. As a result, none of the farmworkers she employed were granted amnesty, De Sias said.

She and and her husband lived without papers for more than 20 years, navigating the challenges of being undocumented while they waited for another opportunity to become naturalized.

In 2011, an opportunity came up. Their son married a U.S. citizen, and once he became a citizen, he sponsored his parents.

De Sias’s husband got his green card first. Her paperwork was being processed when a sister in Mexico whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years got sick. De Sias went to visit her, and on the way back realized her Mexican passport, where her visa to the United States was stamped, had expired.

At the Mexican Embassy in Ciudad Juarez, across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, De Sias got a new passport and, she said, signed some papers without paying attention to what they said. It turns out that one of the forms prevented her from getting a green card.

De Sias turned to Friendly House, an organization that helps immigrants and low-income families, where lawyers quickly fixed the mistake. In 2013, De Sias got her green card. Last year, she applied for citizenship and got fingerprinted, a requirement meant to flag anyone with a criminal past.

In September, she became a U.S. citizen – the first time in decades, she said, that she has felt truly safe in the United States.

“Citizenship is security,” De Sias said. “It means I can be with my family without fear of being deported.”

These days, she volunteers as an instructor at the citizenship classes at Desert Sage Library, paying forward.

You must pass your interview


Isalia Sanchez, 55, Mexico

After living in the United States for 30 years, Isalia Sanchez was more than ready to become a U.S. citizen. But in January, she failed her citizenship interview because her English wasn’t good enough.

After submitting her application in February 2018, Sanchez said, she didn’t know what to study for the interview or who to ask. Her neighbors and friends all spoke Spanish, so she didn’t have much of a chance to practice her English outside simple sentences.

Sanchez said she doesn't recall a lot about her naturalization interview, but one memory is vivid: The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer telling her to stand after it was finished, then informing her she did not pass the English part of the interview.

Sanchez got a break, though. Instead of closing her case and making her start her application anew, the officer gave her a second chance: She has a second interview coming up in March.

And this time, she’ll be ready. She has been taking free English and citizenship classes four days a week at Friendly House, an organization in Phoenix that provides services for immigrants and low-income families.

She’s most looking forward to voting, a right solely reserved for citizens.

“I want to vote,” she said, “because everyone who is an American citizen has this right to vote and decide who can make the laws.”

You must pledge the Oath of Allegiance


Kathy Bortoluzzi, 60, Canada

The first sentence in the Oath of Allegiance, which new U.S. citizens must recite at their naturalization ceremony, states: “I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”

Kathy Bortoluzzi, who was born and raised in Canada, struggled to say these words when she became a citizen September, even though she has been in the United States for 10 years.

Although Canada recognizes dual citizenship, the idea of renouncing her allegiance to her birth country bothered her. It was in Canada that she learned her values and built her career, starting from managing a YMCA to working in the music industry as an agent and promoter for developing artists, including Barenaked Ladies and Alannah Myles. And it’s where she met her husband, John Thompson, a U.S. citizen.

“I look back to when I was sitting there,” at the citizenship ceremony in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, “it was a big thing,” Bortoluzzi said of the oath. “I'm feeling like I’m erasing my past and so much of who I am.”

When she moved to Arizona in 2006 to be with her fiancé, Fountain Hills, an upscale suburb northeast of Phoenix, became her new home. They bought a house there, got married in their backyard and are raising a chocolate Lab named Billie and shy cat named Deacon. And Bortoluzzi has established a successful career in the wellness industry.

“It’s a little surreal for me,” she said. “I finished one journey of my life and I look forward to my next journey as an American citizen.”


‘Get in line’

En Español

Becoming American takes more than an application. The process is long and arduous, and it comes with struggles in and between each step.

PHOENIX – When immigrants talk about becoming U.S. citizens, they often are told, “Get in line.” The federal government offers a 10-step guide for prospective citizens that could be regarded as a way to get in line. But the line is not always straight. For example, a person who marries a U.S. citizen doesn’t need to wait as long to qualify for citizenship as someone who came into the country on a work visa. There are also personal challenges and limitations that come with each step and could cause one’s citizenship application to take a left turn, hit the brakes and, at times, go back to the start line — or the end of the line.



You must have a green card


To be eligible to apply for citizenship, an immigrant must either be a legal permanent resident with a green card for five years or married to a U.S. citizen for three years. A green card sometimes takes more than a year to acquire.

You must speak English


For many, learning English is the most difficult part of the process, especially if the person is an adult or their first language is not a Romance language.

You must know how government works


The difficulty of learning civics goes hand in hand with that of learning English. Although it may be easy to memorize answers, interviewers often ask prospective citizens to define some of the words they’ve used in their answers and explain why they gave a certain answer, making it harder for someone whose first language isn’t English to articulate their thoughts.

You must complete a long form


The N-400 is a 20-page form that every eligible immigrant must file to apply for citizenship. As of 2019, the application fee was $725, a hefty expense for many prospective citizens.

On top of that, many immigrants hire lawyers to help them fill out the form because they don’t understand the legal language it contains.

You must have money


To get the $725 application fee waived or decreased, a prospective citizen must meet or be below the Department of Health and Human Services’ poverty guidelines. This fee can be difficult for immigrants who do not meet these guidelines, but still can’t afford it.

In November, the Trump administration proposed raising the application fee to $1,170 next year and end a program that grants reduced fees for low-income applicants.

You must be fingerprinted


The cost of fingerprinting is included in the $725 citizenship application fee, but prospective citizens must pay for passport photos. They must also bring the paperwork submitted with their green card application, as well as a copy of their green card, to their citizenship interview.

You must pass your interview


The interview makes or breaks a prospective citizen’s journey. Language skills are tested and the civics test is administered. It’s also where immigrants have to answer questions about some of the personal information provided on their N-400 forms, such as work history and education background. Depending on the interviewer, the process can be pleasant or stressful. Applicants learn by the end of their interview if their citizenship applications have been approved – or denied.

You must pledge the Oath of Allegiance


The citizenship ceremony is scheduled within 30 days of a successful interview. This day makes the long, arduous and costly naturalization process worth it. The ceremony usually takes place at a federal courthouse, but it sometimes occurs in special locations, such as the Grand Canyon and Ellis Island in New York Harbor. Right after the ceremony, the new citizens can register to vote through various organizations set up nearby.

Conclusion


Naturalized U.S. citizens enjoy the same rights that native-born citizens have except for one: They can’t run for president or vice president of the United States.

“I know a lot of you are crying happy tears, but some of you may also be crying some sad tears,” said U.S. District Court Judge Douglas L. Rayes at a naturalization ceremony on September 27. “Because you represent your family members in trying to become US citizens in the past, but were not successful. I congratulate every single one of you.”