By Irene Koo, CARECEN Summer Citizenship and Civic Engagement intern
This summer, I had the privilege of interning with CARECEN as part of the Citizenship and Civic Engagement program focused on education and empowerment. I write these words a few months out and many miles away, but I find that my experience with CARECEN has continued to stick with me. Over the course of two months, I had the chance to work directly with a vibrant and integral part of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia community. I tutored adults preparing for the United States citizenship exam and worked with students from Cardozo High School participating in our new leadership program. The most memorable part of teaching this summer was forming personal relationships with so many of the students and hearing their stories and experiences. Examining the role of the Supreme Court or causes of the Revolutionary War over a tutoring session could easily turn into chatting about weekend plans and cravings for pupusas. Brainstorming solutions to racial conflicts in the classroom balanced out goofy icebreakers and discussions about hopes for college and beyond. I approached this summer with the expectation that I would be teaching others, but instead came away with a deeper understanding of perseverance, justice, and what it means to be “American.”
One of the most insightful experiences for me came from working with a small group of ninth graders, all recent arrivals from Central America, at Cardozo High School.
Twice a week, we met with the students to build leadership and communication skills and design a community service project. We discussed important historical social movements such as United Farm Workers and American Civil Rights, but also talked about issues affecting Cardozo and the DC community. I was regularly blown away by how thoughtful and passionate they were about finding solutions to real problems. To illustrate, the students decided to tackle the complex issue of in-school violence and racial relations. They collectively wrote a student petition for improved safety measures, met with their school counselor, and received signatures from their peers to present to the principal. Despite the fact that they knew very little English, the students demonstrated that they were willing to work together and step outside of their comfort zone in order to effect positive change in their new community.
Working with the diverse Latino community challenges narrow conceptions of identity. All of our students have a unique story and myriad reasons for coming to the United States, with some motivated by the hope of reuniting with family members and others by the desire for a better future. Although many identify as Salvadoran, Honduran, or Dominican, our students also share in common the desire to become Americans and call this country home. The possibilities afforded by citizenship are numerous, ranging from voting rights, welfare benefits, and improved job prospects. Yet becoming a citizen is a lengthy and involved process, notwithstanding the initial $680 application fee. Preparation for the exam itself consists of studying one hundred questions on US history, civics, and geography, reading and writing sentences, and conducting mock interviews to improve oral comprehension. Attaining citizenship and achieving proficiency in the English language is no small task, especially for many of our students who did not attend school past the elementary or secondary level. I remember translating for Ophelia, a sweet woman from El Salvador, for her first naturalization interview. After having practiced with her and knowing how hard she had studied, it was difficult not to feel disappointed when the official informed us she had failed the interview. Yet, the first thing Ophelia asked me when we stepped outside of the USCIS office was, “When can I come back to try again?”
As someone who was born a United States citizen, it’s difficult to understand the significance of citizenship and the joy of seeing the official stamp after a successful interview (whether that be on a first or fourth attempt). For many, this achievement is the culmination of a much longer journey full of adjustment and sacrifice. When I attended my first naturalization ceremony with Balthazar, a student from El Salvador, I was moved by the overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment from the new citizens and their families in the courtroom. It was refreshing to see how beautiful and inspiring our immigration process could be when it succeeds in serving the immigrant community, rather than limiting and excluding it. However, it is challenging to reconcile this celebration of American values and our “melting pot” culture and heritage while there are tens of thousands of immigrants in this country who are systematically denied basic human rights. For that reason, I want to conclude this reflection by mentioning the ongoing humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America.
Our immigration system is outdated and broken, a fact made increasingly clear by our overflowing detention centers and ill-equipped law enforcement. In only the last few months, over 60,000 children from Central America have crossed the border into the United States. These refugees have not been met with understanding, but have been criminalized, detained, separated from family members, and deported without due process. We focus on how to keep people out, rather than considering the root causes of violence and instability that force young children to leave their homes. We teach our students the principles from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, laud these values in our naturalization ceremonies, and then fail to live out these ideals in practice. Immigration reform is unquestionably complicated, but is at the same time an issue far greater than partisan disagreements. I’ve been frustrated by the continued delay of executive action and meaningless rhetoric from politicians who have the luxury of indecision. We greatly need reform, but perhaps empathy even more so.
The most important lesson I learned from CARECEN is that there can be no justice as long as there is indifference. Part of CARECEN’s citizenship program emphasizes the importance of civic engagement. After all, it is not simply being a citizen, but what we do with that opportunity that holds the power to change history. I am proud and encouraged by the widespread show of solidarity in the weekly vigils that have taken place outside of the White House. With continued action and perseverance, I am confident that the demands for justice and dignity for unaccompanied minors can become a reality. As I continue to learn more about the difficult, often dangerous, path of immigration and the long process towards citizenship, I reflect on the following quote from Maya Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Truly, I can think of no better embodiment of this love than the community I had the chance to work with this summer, full of individuals who have overcome innumerable barriers in their journey to the United States. If there is one word that encompasses this resilient community, it is hope.