A Summer at CARECEN – Citizenship Intern Reflections

This summer the department of Citizenship and Civic Participation was happy to have some wonderful interns. Here are their reflections after finishing their time here. CCP is so grateful for all their hard work and we wish them the best!

“According to Alice Walker, “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” Carecen has made it their mission to ensure that not only is the Latino immigrant community conscious of their power, but provided with the tools and motivation to take steps to harness and utilize it in a way that creates new realities for themselves and their community. The message that Carecen and the Citizenship Team has for their students and aspiring citizens is clear, direct, and mobilizing. Every student is made to understand that the resources and opportunities are here, the responsibility is theirs, and they owe it to themselves and their neighbors to create change. During my time at this internship I have come to understand the seriousness and enthusiasm with which many of the immigrants who go through the citizenship process understand this responsibility. I have heard the recurrent and resounding assertion that one of the principle motivations for obtaining citizenship is to vote, seen former students walk out of oath ceremonies with voter registration cards already in hand, and witnessed the gravity and passion with which students approach and pursue the process. There is excitement, community, perseverance, and incredible drive that has created an undeniable energy in Carecen and an atmosphere of promise and hope. Never have I seen a group of people cross over so many obstacles with such persistence as I have during my time in this office. In the face of language and literacy barriers students tirelessly drill civics flash-cards, interview questions, and English comprehension week after week, returning each time with the same, if not greater, eagerness and energy to learn and obtain citizenship in a country where the odds are in many ways stacked against them.  

 

I know that it will be hard for me to leave this internship because of how easily invested I became in the lives of the immigrants we work with. Every feeling of excitement, anxiety, and pride that they experienced for themselves I couldn’t help but share with them. Often after only an hour together I found myself completely involved and devoted to seeing their lives transformed through Carecen’s services. To leave in the middle of these wonderful people’s paths to citizenship will be difficult because I want nothing more than to experience with them the joy that they will feel when all their hard work pays off and transforms their lives in all the ways they have anticipated. This aspect of my experience here in Carecen has taught me the importance of getting others involved and exposed to Carecen and similar programs as well as the immigrant community in general. Direct and personal involvement with the immigration process and immigrants themselves inspires not only empathy and consciousness to a process we are kept mostly blind to, but a sense that everyone on an individual level has the power to make difference in personal lives and collective realities.Volunteering is rewarded by students with such incredible friendliness and gratitude that it becomes impossible not to understand the profound difference being involved in immigrants’ lives makes.

 

In a time when there is incredible stigma and hostility surrounding immigrants (Latino immigrants in particular) this experience has given me incredible perspective and hope. While they are often hidden from mainstream attention, which remains preoccupied with the political controversies involved with immigration, there are many incredible organizations, workers, and volunteers like those you will find at Carecen who are mobilizing and empowering entire communities. To witness a place of such positive change and opportunity in spite of a reality that has turned so dark made me understand where and with whom true power lies. It lies with the smaller initiatives that aim to make change person by person until individual strength turns into unstoppable unity. Carecen reaches through D.C., Virginia, and Maryland, provides legal services to and naturalizes entire families, and spreads its message throughout these areas that make others equally as passionate and aware. Carecen is a power source for change. It is places like these where differences that can’t come from legislation and public policy are created, and where tiny battles against systems of oppression are won. Carecen is crucial, transformative, and an integral part to ensuring the collective voice of Latinos and immigrants never be silenced.”  — Leah Becton

“Returning to work at CARECEN after a two-month hiatus for an internship was a truly rewarding experience. Coming into the internship, I was excited to assume new responsibilities and to gain a more thorough understanding of how CARECEN’s CCP branch operates. I spent my first day at the US District Court at an Oath Ceremony for 115 new-citizens-to-be. I watched with admiration as six CARECEN clients became newly minted Americans. Having never seen an oath ceremony before, I was overwhelmed with pride to witness the final product of months of their tireless work. After registering new citizens to vote, distributing swag bags and documenting the important day with pictures, Rachel and I returned to CARECEN to help more people achieve the end-goal of swearing in as US citizens.

During my time at CARECEN, I’ve seen the drive and determination possessed by so many clients. They often confront many hurdles before they can even apply for US citizenship and the actual process presents even more difficulties. The steep price to apply, the time needed to study and the intense scrutiny applicants are put under all contribute to an intimidating ordeal. The process is designed to be daunting to deter most from even attempting to become citizens. But CARECEN’s clients are those brave enough to apply and strong enough to persist.

One of the most valuable things I’ve been able to do during my time here is to hear people share their stories. Everyone that walks through CARECEN’s door has a storied past and has overcome adversity to achieve what they have today. During the application process, clients are put in vulnerable positions where they are forced to expose every part of their lives, regardless of whether they would have otherwise been willing to. I am so grateful for the opportunity I have had to hear people’s stories. Their stories about hardship and triumphs have moved and inspired me. Each of CARECEN’s clients has so much to share and to offer. CARECEN’s clients are a prime example of how enriching immigrants’ contributions are to the United States.” — Alex McGuire

Before beginning my internship at CARECEN, I anticipated that my work would be typical “intern” work — coffee runs, picking up the phone, filing, etc. Though that’s definitely some ot it, as soon as I set foot in the building, I realized that this assumption was largely incorrect. I quickly learned that ‘hitting the ground running’ is the CARECEN motto and that no two days are the same here. However, as I attempted to hit the ground running, it became evident that I had a lot to learn. Immersed in a completely bilingual environment, I found myself reaching to remember Spanish words and phrases; and I constantly asked questions to which the answers now seem obvious (like “what is the N-400?”)

More than anything, my initial lack of knowledge made me realize how detached I truly was from the plight of immigrants in the United States. In high school, I had volunteered at the Pasadena Job Center, an organization that helps migrant workers find jobs and fight for better wages. Hearing these people’s stories of hardship and discrimination in the United States emboldened me to get more involved in supporting immigrant communities. It wasn’t until coming to CARECEN, though, that I began to understand the confluence of factors that complicate and impede the path to citizenship. I was exposed to the multitude of ways through which United States’ society quietly perpetuates the suffering of immigrants.

For example, during my second week here I began tutoring a woman for the citizenship interview. She was a hardworking housekeeper from El Salvador with a Greencard and a clean track record in the United States. At first glance, one might have thought that this woman could just study for the citizenship interview and smoothly transition to citizenship. Nevertheless, her process had been inevitably complicated. She had previously visited a notario who signed her up to be interviewed in English even though she qualified for a language exemption. She not only didn’t speak English: she was also illiterate. She failed the interview once, blindsided by her notary’s mistake. Additionally, even though she had facial and head trauma from an injury in El Salvador, she did not qualify for a medical waiver. Our job was to tutor her for her second chance at the interview, which was a month away.

Even though this individual’s story seems especially complex, my time at CARECEN has taught me just how common stories like her’s are in the immigrant community. It’s never just filling out the N-400 — it’s application fees, discrimination, language barriers, mental health and medical issues. It’s housing, fraudulent notarios, inconsistent immigration services, and complications in pretty much any other facet of life you can fathom. CARECEN is an organization that understands this, and that’s why it’s such a ‘hit the ground running’ kind of place. Whatever issues an immigrant might be experiencing, CARECEN is ready to take them on. The mindset at CARECEN reflects the lives of the immigrants it serves: no two days are the same, but we are ready for anything.” — Carter Woodruff

 

 

Volunteer and New Citizen Spotlight

Enrique Campusano German is originally from the Dominican Republic. He was very involved in his community before he left for the United States. He has been sending money back for community development since he left and has single handedly created a baseball program for Dominican youth. He had applied for citizenship in English in the past, being just two years short of the language exemption, and failed. Two years later he was even more committed to becoming a citizen and began to study in Spanish in CARECEN’s citizenship education program. Being more prepared, he applied with CARECEN again. He went to his interview on March 15th with his CARECEN interpreter and he passed! On May 9th Sr. Campusano became a United Citizen. He jokes that when he put the photos of his ceremony on Facebook all of the Dominican Republic called him. Soon after, he came into the CARECEN to complete his final steps of becoming a citizen. He registered to vote and applied for a U.S. Passport. He has since received his passport and hopes to travel to the Dominican Republic in July so he can spend a whole month with his baseball program youth, something he was not able to do when he was a permanent resident. Congratulations Sr. Campusano!

During his studies, Sr. Campusano worked with our high school volunteer Alex. Alex is a high school student at Sidwell School and had this to say about her experience:
“I will never forget the day one of the students I tutored, Sr. Campesiño, passed his citizenship test. He came running into the office while I was sitting at the front desk and when told me the good news, I got up and he gave me the most enthusiastic hug. As we were laughing, he looked me in the eye and said, “Thank you mija, I could have never done this without you.” I told him he could have done it without me, it was all his hard work that paid off. He smiled and said, “One day you have to visit my country, you are dominicana in your heart.” We laughed and talked about how the interview went for a few minutes before he went to tell the other students that he had passed. I was so touched that I had made an impact on this man’s life and that I had been able to share such a special moment with him.”

We are so glad that Alex had such a fulfilling experience working with us and we are looking forward to seeing the awesome immigration advocate and ally she becomes!

2016 Year in Citizenship

In 2016, the CARECEN citizenship program served 536 different clients from a diverse variety of backgrounds.  In 2016, our program:

  • conducted 454 naturalization eligibility screenings
  • filed 239 applications for citizenship (Form N-400)
  • registered 118 new voters
  • And conducted outreach presentations and citizenship information sessions all over the DMV!

CARECEN served clients from all throughout the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region.

 


Clients were most heavily concentrated in Wards 1 and 4 of D.C., but came from all areas of the District too.


While the majority of the clients in the citizenship program came from the District of Columbia, many came from the neighboring counties of Virginia and Maryland as well.


In 2016, the citizenship program worked with clients from many different walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, and national origins.

A great majority immigrated to the United States from Latin American countries, with the most represented nation being El Salvador ( 57%). A few clients, however, immigrated from other countries throughout Africa and Europe.

Their ages ranged anywhere from 18-87, with the majority of clients falling between 50-70 years of age and the median being 52.


Those in the citizenship program had a diverse range of educational levels, between anywhere from no formal schooling (11%) to full college degrees (8%).


Out of all of our clients, 60% of them were female


After determining their citizenship eligibility, CARECEN held citizenship classes to prepare students for their naturalization interviews at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ offices.

In those classes, 35 CARECEN volunteer teachers taught 317 different students, while tutoring 19 of them individually. This totaled 1,248 hours of citizenship class instruction.

 

A beginner citizenship class at CARECEN

Our volunteers were crucial to the success of our program. Over 300 volunteers contributed over 4,000 hours of service through tutoring, teaching, conversation practice, mock interviews, and voter workshops.

Conversation practice at CARECEN with volunteers

Student Success Story -- Leopoldina:

At 77 years old, Leopoldina discovered that she didn’t qualify for a language exemption because she had only been in the United States for six years.  At first, she was desperate and thought that she would never be able to become a citizen.  But then, Leopoldina thought of her undocumented son.  “I did all this effort at my age for him", she said.

Leopoldina studied and studied.  “It was not easy,” she said.  “To learn a language at my age, things just don’t sink in like they used to.  But I studied...every day I studied.  I never got tired of studying…well, my hand did get a little tired, but it was worth it, because now I have a certificate that says I am a US citizen!"

The day of her interview, Leopoldina was nervous that she nearly made herself sick.  "The time right before the interview is the most difficult, with the fear and doubt in yourself.  But confidence is important, because once I was in the interview, I felt like it was easy because of everything I learned."

Leopoldina with her volunteer teacher after passing her exam

In addition to classes, our program includes field trips to sites relevant to the citizenship exam.   CARECEN partners with the National Parks Service to offer a customized Monument Tour experience for our classes.

A CARECEN citizenship class on a field trip to the National Mall

To further expand our reach, last year CARECEN partnered with the D.C. Public Library and Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School to host citizenship information sessions and workshops.  We also worked with the D.C. Board of Elections to engage in voter registration outreach in our communities, and received funding from USCIS and the DC Mayor's Office on Latino Affairs.

 

Members of the American University and Georgetown University communities worked with CARECEN to promote citizenship and service learning among their students and staff.

 

 

When it was finally time for their naturalization interviews for United States citizenship, CARECEN helped interpret for their clients 52 times during their official interviews.

 

Asuncion and Julia Escobar (El Salvador)

Florida Abigail Fernandez Del Cid (El Salvador)

Jose Salgado (El Salvador)

Juana Rosa Romero de Leon and Augurio Leon (Peru)

“I want to thank CARECEN for the help they gave me to be able to take this big step to becoming a citizen of this country, which for me is a blessing from God.  It has so many benefits for you, for your family, and for this country.  Si se puede!” –Juana Ordoñez (immigrated from El Salvador)

In 2016, the CARECEN citizenship program helped 155 clients become new United States citizens!

 

Which equates to a 97.8% interview pass rate!

In 2017, we plan to do even more.  With your help, we can reach even more potential new citizens!

Summer Citizenship Intern Reflections

This summer, our Citizenship and Civic Participation (CCP) department had four interns who experienced the daily workings of the program and what we do here for the Latino community of immigrants in Columbia Heights. Shea Christian, Caroline James, Camila Salvador, and Briggitte Suastegui worked on curriculum development, individual tutoring for the citizenship test, citizenship class registration, and data entry and management for our clients. They were also given opportunities to interpret for an official USCIS interview and attend Naturalization ceremonies. We asked them to share some of their experiences, thoughts, and insight on the subject of immigration and the work we do here.

What are some of your thoughts on the citizenship process after your time here?

CJ: As someone who has never looked into or tried to understand the citizenship process before, I learned so much. I think if people who feel negatively towards immigrants had a chance to understand everything you need to go through to become a citizen they would have a greater respect for the population. It is just a good reminder to learn as much as you can before drawing conclusions, especially in this political climate where sweeping generalizations and nasty words about people from other countries are becoming the norm.

CS: What struck me the most was the amount of preparation and sacrifice – over the course of weeks and months – for a 20 minute interview. The average American may not be phased by missing a couple of days of work, but for our clients, that may be giving up a lot. Studying in a new language, commuting to USCIS offices in the middle of nowhere (a lot of the time via public transport), missing time with children and family, having to re-prioritize other important, personal obligations…is difficult, to say the least. That fact alone makes the process grueling and intimidating for most. But it also makes success a lot sweeter, and makes the whole process – tears, sweat and sacrifice included – very worthwhile.

SC: Becoming a citizen is definitely no easy feat.

Do you have any favorite experiences?

BS: One of the most rewarding and nerve wracking experiences this summer was having the opportunity to interpret at a USCIS citizenship interview. I knew this was something I wanted to do by the end of the summer, because I wanted to have the experience of interpreting in a professional setting (and something that was out of my comfort zone). I knew I would regret it if I let the opportunity pass by, but that didn’t mean I was incredibly nervous about it. I did my interpretation for an Ecuadorian man in the Fairfax USCIS office and all in all, it went well. I was faced with the task of navigating a double interpretation – the USCIS officer we got that day was deaf, so he had his own interpreter to translate between sign language to English (which I would then translate into Spanish). It was slightly distracted by the added step of interpretation I was not expecting, but the nerves went away once we had gotten a few questions in. And nothing is better than having your client pass and break out of their quiet shell of the morning commute (due to the nerves, no doubt) to a talkative and ecstatic soon-to-be new citizen. That’s one experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.

CJ: I tend to not usually feel patriotic but working in this position has given me more reason to than I have ever had before. There was something so special about looking across the courtroom at a naturalization ceremony and seeing the newest U.S. citizens. It is so empowering to finally be able to participate in the democracy of a country that you have lived in for so long. It made me forget for a moment a lot of the nastiness that goes on and smile knowing that I live in a nation of immigrants. Like Briggitte described, I also got the opportunity to work as an interpreter at USCIS and I completely agree that the experience is incredibly valuable. Also on a more personal level, I really solidified my understanding of US history and government structure through helping clients study the civics questions and through re-working the curriculum for citizenship class. I know those civics questions like the back of my hand.

CS: My experience with tutoring was perhaps one of the more fulfilling parts of my time at CARECEN. Not only did I gain insight and a deep understanding of the naturalization process, but interacting with clients on a daily basis and consequently forming personal ties with community members truly allowed me to put a face on the plight at hand, expanding past my familial experience with immigration issues. Growing up in the Mount Pleasant area within the Salvadoran community, I’ve often felt very disillusioned with the American immigration system; but by sharing struggles and breakthroughs with clients, working together to achieve milestones that maybe weren’t even conceivable before, and jumping into an often times intimidating and scary process – together – I immediately felt comforted by the possibility of making a difference in one person’s private path to citizenship. After my time with CARECEN, I’ve found that it is a little less daunting and a little bit more hearteningly hopeful to celebrate the personal, albeit smaller victories, all while keeping our eyes on the bigger picture.

BS: The day to day work we did in the office was as rewarding as the special events we were able to attend, though. Never have I seen someone as excited as a woman who I helped register to vote on morning in the office. When I asked her if this would be her first time registering, instead of answering, she reached into her purse and pulled out her naturalization certificate with a grin on her face. She held it out proudly to me and said “it’s the first of many times”. I couldn’t help but be as excited as for her as she was. She had just recently been naturalized and couldn’t wait to vote in the upcoming election.

What about frustrations?

BS: The amount of times someone has come into the office in a panic about a letter they received in the mail (one that they can’t read because it’s solely in English) was a wake up call to the fact that this process can be highly difficult to navigate and is just, well, scary for those going through it. Their first questions are always “is something wrong?” or “what do I need to do?” – an initial reaction of something bad happening.

CJ: Like Briggitte touched on, if you are low literacy in your native language and have a minimal understanding of English and are you expected to navigate through an unfamiliar bureaucratic system, it can be overwhelming to say the least. Additionally some of the clients have had little experience in a school setting so they need to learn way more than just the information. They may need to solidify their reading and writing skills and learn techniques for studying that many people who have spent time in school take for granted.

SC: It’s really hard for a lot of native English speakers to understand how difficult it is to be thrown into a world in which everyone else is speaking a different language. English is just so widely used that many Americans have come to take it for granted that, even when traveling abroad, someone will be able to understand them. Not so for the majority of Central American and South American immigrants that CARECEN serves. The lack of adequate communication that results from this causes a variety of miscommunication problems, both within the system (getting all of the necessary documents filed for citizenship etc.) and within the realm of the actual test. While some clients are able to have the interview in Spanish because of their age and time they have lived in the U.S., many others have to take it in English.

Do you have any parting words about the experience?

BS: Working here I learned that for every person I tutored, it wasn’t just about being able to pass their citizenship test. It was about being able to be reunited with family members, it was about gaining economic stability through better jobs, and most relevant to the times, it was about being able to vote this November and having a say in who will head our government. Participating in our democracy, becoming civically engaged, having their voices heard – all of the qualities we pride ourselves in having as Americans, we share with these men and women who come weekly to class and tutoring. Yes, it was a great feeling to be able to see tangible results in the work I did this summer, but I think the most important part for me, and what made the biggest impact was to know that what I did here was only the start of a longer chain of accomplishments for the immigrant community in DC. Our clients go home and start study groups with friends and family who are also studying for the test, they recruit other to come to CARECEN to start the citizenship process, and most importantly, they go out and vote!

CJ: I LOVE CARECEN! And also I feel so proud of our clients and their hard work toward achieving their goals. My parting words are try to be empathetic instead of being mean (that is to you Donald Trump). Also yes we need to vote! Research all candidates, including Senators and Representatives, because real change does not happen just with the president.

SC: Working at CARECEN has been such a rewarding and eye opening experience for me. The people at CARECEN, employees, volunteers, and clients alike, are among the most inspiring people that I’ve met. The dedication and long hours that the staff puts in to make the world a better place for everyone, American citizen or not, is really incredible. The clients that I work with are equally amazing, as I’ve worked with them and learned their incredible stories and witnessed their dedication towards bettering their lives in the midst of some serious anti-immigrant sentiment. Every person has a journey, and working at CARECEN has taught me that I want to make mine as productive and meaningful as I can.