Immigrants aided in path to citizenship

by Marni Ginther

Pop quiz: Which states were the 13 original colonies? Who said, “Give me liberty or give me death?” Which constitutional amendments address voting rights?

Those are three of the 99 questions immigrants have to memorize if they want to become citizens of the United States.

Organizations like the International Institute of Minnesota on Como Avenue, near the University’s St. Paul campus, help immigrants prepare for the test.

Elizabeth Regalado teaches a citizenship class at the institute and said when she began teaching the class, even she was stumped by a few of the test’s questions.

“I tell the students that when they finish the class and pass the test, they’ll probably know more than most Americans,” Regalado said.

Corleen Smith, the institute’s citizenship coordinator, said the institute assists about 300 people annually in the application process to take the citizenship test. Last year, 170 students took the institute’s citizenship classes, Smith said.

Although she sees many organizations in the Twin Cities that offer citizenship classes, Smith said she still suspects there’s a lot of unmet demand for help.

“For the amount of publicity we do for our classes – which isn’t much – our numbers (of students) are pretty high,” Smith said. “I think if we had more staff and more classes to offer, we’d have no trouble finding students to fill those spots.”

But the road to citizenship doesn’t only mean studying U.S. history and government. Regalado was quick to point out that immigrants also need help with all the steps leading up to applying for citizenship, and those are often much harder.

“I think we need more English classes in general,” Regalado said. “This (citizenship) class moves pretty fast, and if you’re struggling with English, you’re kind of stuck.”

Many of her students who speak English still stumble on the written portion of the test since they never learned to write English, since speaking and listening are what most learn first, Regalado said.

To apply to take the citizenship test, immigrants must have been a legal permanent resident in the United States for at least five years prior to application.

For Tatiana Damacen and Martha Kohman, even making it to that stage of the process seemed like a miracle.

The two women met each other after they came to Minnesota from Peru.

“I had to wait 10 years to come here as a permanent resident,” Damacen said. “I feel so lucky because I hear stories about people coming illegally.”

Both said they aren’t too nervous for the citizenship test because the interview they went through to get their green card was “much more intimidating.”

Despite the long process they’ve been through – Damacen has been here 10 years and Kohman seven – both women strongly believe the United States is “the land of opportunity.”

Damacen’s first job in the country was as a housemaid; Kohman’s first job was at McDonalds.

“Yes, it was hard at first, but I set my goals. When I was a kid it was always my dream to come here,” Damacen said.

After arriving in Minnesota, she took English classes at the University of Minnesota and now has an associate’s degree from Hennepin County Technical College. She teaches at a Spanish immersion school in Hopkins.

Despite the challenges that pave the way for students in the institute’s citizenship class, Smith said she estimates about 90 percent of the students pass the test.

“A lot of people can really benefit from citizenship,” Smith said. Permanent residents who take the extra step to become a citizen are able to vote, find better jobs and have more rights. Part of the institute’s mission, Smith said, is to help those people realize and achieve those benefits.