The Road to Citizenship

Library volunteers guide the way
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Photos by Shawn Kinney

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

Last year, 757,434 people were sworn in as American citizens, including 12,939 in the Seattle-Tacoma area, according to U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services. They won the right to say the Pledge of Allegiance with meaning as well as the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Julia Craig, 67, of Bothell is one of the people who helped these hopefuls join the American family.

“I was in foreign services after I graduated college,” said Craig, a volunteer citizenship tutor at the Bothell Library. “I worked in an embassy in Guatemala for two years and the embassy in the Congo for two years. I know what it’s like to be in a new country with a new language and new customs. So I feel like I can be a gate into this country.”

The King County Library System offers free information and tools so people can prepare for the citizenship test (also known as the naturalization test) on their own. KCLS also provides 14 citizenship classes each week out of 48 libraries, all open to the public. In class, volunteer citizenship tutors work with class participants to pass the written exam and spoken interview.

“We are proud of it,” said Teresa Claypool, manager of staffing support services at KCLS. “Last year, we had a least 111 students (who) came back and told us they became citizens. Often, they come back to share their experience.”

For the most part, the citizenship classes are an extension of libraries’ services. The facilitators, like Craig, are all volunteers. The KCLS Foundation, which is the libraries’ auxiliary, provides the student and teacher workbooks. The annual budget is about $3,000. “It’s a pretty good return, actually,” said Claypool.

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“It means I am a citizen. My whole family is. Now I am happy to join them.” – Evonne Randolph, 34, Renton, stay-at-home mom

Craig said the main thing volunteers give is confidence: “Some people come from oppressive countries. They need the confidence to go in and take the exam. … People who are from oppressive governments … are just not used to speaking out or speaking up for themselves.”

There is no U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services training or certification for citizenship tutor volunteers, but different organizations that sponsor citizenship classes may have their own requirements, said Sharon Rummery, a public affairs officer at CIS, which offers instruction assistance at www.uscis.gov/citizenship and periodically trains instructors. CIS field officers provide brochures and educational materials to instructors who request them, and they often speak to citizenship classes about naturalization requirements.

“These volunteers are an invaluable resource in preparing for the test,” said Rummery. “Not only do they help applicants study for the test, but classes usually improve the students’ English and give them confidence when they appear for their interview.”

The most important attribute of a successful volunteer is character. KCLS seeks people who are at least 18 years old and willing, friendly and excited about the process and responsibility. Experience traveling abroad, working abroad or working with people from diverse countries or cultures is helpful.

“Personally, I have learned that the U.S. CIS does everything it can to help people become citizens, said Claypool. “Each person has paid a lot of money and done a lot of work to get to where they are — taking the test. The officers are aware of that and try to put people at ease as much as possible.”

To become a citizen, immigrants must study and pass a short test based on U.S. civics and history. Roughly 40 percent of the test is based on the U.S. Constitution. The prospective citizens study 100 questions and answers, but only 10 are asked; applicants must answer six correctly to pass. English comprehension is also measured through a writing and reading exam and during a short interview before the test.

The test has changed in recent decades. A test composed in the mid-‘80s that was used until 2008 had a single answer for each question, said Rummery. But there were concerns that people without English skill could memorize the answers ahead of time and pass without having English comprehension.

The new test was introduced in 2007 and gradually replaced the prior test, said Rummery. It requires applicants to think about the concepts presented, so there are lots of questions that have more than one correct answer. The old test would ask what the three branches of government are, and the only correct answer was judicial, executive and legislative. The new test asks:

“Name one branch or part of the government.” Correct answers include: Congress, legislative, the president, executive, the courts, judiciary. Any would be correct.

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“I am so happy. This is my dream from a long time ago.” – Yudith Zambrano-Alamilla, 34, Renton, stay-at-home mom

“Language is a large ocean. This is a little pond,” said Vincent Voltaggio, a volunteer citizenship tutor at the Issaquah Library. He’s a consultant for a translation company and briefly traveled through mainland China. “The government specifies exactly what they need to get through the interview. I can teach them the application and the 100 questions … and (they) understand what it means, too.”

Language comprehension is the most common cause of failure, said Rummery. But those who are 50 years old and have had a permanent resident card for 20 years, or those 55 with 15 years of residency, can take the test and interview in their native tongue.

“It is frustrating if you feel … that there’s a danger that someone is going to fail,” said Voltaggio. “They apply for their citizenship test, and their assessment for their readiness is not correct. The government is very efficient now. There is a three- to four-month wait period maximum, and if someone doesn’t know enough English, it’s not enough time.

“Everyone I know of has passed, except those students who failed because of poor English skills. It is most frustrating when the student doesn’t realize that’s the problem.”

Craig says there are a wide variety of students from all kinds of countries. For this area, there are a lot of Hispanics, Russians and Eastern Europeans in class. The most rewarding part of the job is “their appreciation of what we are doing to help them achieve a goal they’ve been working on for a very long time,” said Craig. “Leaving your country and all your friends and family is not an easy thing. … They appreciate what this country has to offer.”

The citizenship classes are also a chance for librarians to reach out.

“We want them to know the library is free and open to everyone. Access is open to everybody,” said Claypool. “Sometimes the library is new to someone coming from another country. We want to educate them about how libraries work in the United States.”

Citizenship information and tools are available at every King County Library System library. Citizenship classes are available at most libraries. For information about U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services, visit online. For more information about classes and materials, contact your local KCLS library or online.

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