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.