maryland journal

Land of the free class, home of the studious

Immigrants flock to course to prepare for citizenship

March 26, 2007|By Rona Marech | Rona Marech,sun reporter

SILVER SPRING -- What is the national anthem of the United States? the teacher asked. A chorus of voices responded in unison, "The Star-Spangled Banner!" Then an echo rolled through the classroom, "spangled banner ... spangled banner ... spangled banner," as immigrants, whose native tongues range from Vietnamese to Spanish, practiced saying the words.

The questions kept coming: "Who are your senators? What is the introduction to the Constitution called?" Each time, the answers bounced back quickly, "Mikulski ... Mikulski ... preamble ... preamble."

They have their green cards. They have the will. But these students have one last hurdle to cross before they reach their goal of becoming Americans: They must pass the citizenship test.

They have to prove they can read, write and speak English, show they have basic knowledge of U.S. government and history, and demonstrate what the government describes as an attachment to the Constitution and good moral character.

After coming so far, they really don't want to blow it. So week after week, some for as many as two years, they come to free classes organized by the Montgomery County Refugee Center and practice, practice, practice.

"I teach French to middle-schoolers, and I wish they were all such motivated students," said Jane Reeves, a volunteer.

The number of people taking part in the six-year-old Citizenship Preparation Program has grown significantly in recent months, said Ellen Mentzer, the program manager. She attributes the surge of interest partly to concern among immigrants that permanent-resident status is no longer adequate.

"The anti-immigrant tone in the news and on TV is making people not trust their green cards as much," she said.

Some immigrants also are aware that application fees are likely to go up soon from $400 to $675, and they want to take the test before that happens. And others know that the test is set to change in 2008, Mentzer said. Their worries that the new exam will be harder are inspiring them to hurry and study now, in some cases after years of thinking about becoming citizens.

On a recent evening, students in one classroom practiced simple sentences, such as "The children play at school." Next door, they shouted out answers to questions about government and history. In a third room, Reeves was working on interview techniques with a group of students from Albania, Russia, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Bolivia, Vietnam and Colombia.

"Tell me about your most recent trip outside the U.S.," Reeves asked. "How many times have you been married? ... Do you have any title of nobility in any foreign country?"

"No kings or queens," a student answered.

"Have you ever been a habitual drunkard?" Reeves asked.

"Sometimes," came the answer, and everyone laughed.

The interview questions can be quite personal and, sometimes, downright tricky. Who knows her spouse's Social Security number by heart? Who can remember the exact dates of trips they took outside the country?

Well, these students can. They know who wrote the national anthem and have detailed information about their husbands or wives at their fingertips. But still, many worry, especially about their English skills.

"The history is easy; it's the conversation that is hard," said Ana Gladis Montalvo Argueta, 57, a native of El Salvador. She can answer the questions, but she often struggles with the dreaded follow-up, "What does the question mean?"

Salome Villarroel, a 61-year-old woman who immigrated from Bolivia seven years ago, has trouble hearing the difference between the words "when" and "where" and gets stuck on questions about tax returns. And if she doesn't understand the question - "Oh my goodness!"- she grows flustered.

The state-funded program, which offers tutoring as well as the classes, has two sites in Silver Spring and has added a third in Germantown. Last year, the center served 420 students, about 80 percent of whom went on to pass the test.

Many of them have poignant stories. With hard work, one man passed though he could not read or write in his native language. Some students who become citizens are able to go on to sponsor relatives - a child, perhaps, or a parent. With citizenship, many are able to get better jobs.

"I need to vote. ... I like the politics," said Villarroel, who has been coming to classes three times a week. "I need to look for good jobs."

She isn't messing around. She downloaded a recording of test questions onto an iPod, and every day - on the bus and during breaks at her housekeeping job - she listens and methodically writes the answers to the questions over and over.

She is starting to get the giddy feeling that her perseverance will pay off. She scored 100 on the reading and writing part of the exam, and at 2 p.m. tomorrow, she plans to ace the interview.

"I'll pass," she said with a broad smile. "At 4 p.m., I'll be a citizen."

rona.marech@baltsun.com

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