Thursday, April 3, 2014

Citizenship and Civics 101

In mid-February, Andrea Frantz, Jasmine Bautista, and I welcomed eight students to the public library’s meeting room. We told them how happy we were that they wanted to become naturalized citizens and they, in turn, told us why they had decided to sign up for our Citizenship Class.

“It’s time,” said one. He’s lived in Storm Lake for 17 years but came to the United States from El Salvador 25 years ago.

“My kids told me I needed to,” said another. The woman sitting next to her smiled and nodded in agreement.

And then, silence. That awkward silence you get when you start something new with people you don’t know.

For the first few weeks, the eight sat politely, watching our PowerPoint presentations with intense focus. They were hesitant when completing worksheets and looked to the three who were the stronger English speakers to respond to our questions. But gradually, as we came to trust one another, they smiled. Their barely-audible responses turned louder and (somewhat) confident. They laughed. Some even came early so they could review material and tell us about their lives.

At that point, they were no longer just students. They had become our neighbors.

Together, we travelled through more than 500 years of American history—from the Pilgrims to the Revolutionary War to the Louisiana Purchase to the Civil Rights Movement to the current administration—and talked about the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; the three branches of government; the responsibilities of federal, state, and local governments; and the names of current politicians.

It was a huge amount of information and some really, really hard topics to understand in a short period of time.

But there were nods of recognition all around the table when we discussed the need for the Bill of Rights and its guarantees of free speech, religion, press, and assembly. There were expressions of shock and surprise when we introduced Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and described how society had demanded there be separate water fountains, restrooms, and entries for black and white citizens. And there were lots of sighs.

The civics test—one of four tests given during the naturalization interview—is comprised of 100 questions. During the interview, they’ll be asked 10.

My ancestors emigrated from Germany and Sweden, some as early as 1851 and others as late as 1885, but all before Ellis Island was named as the central port of entry -- and some even before Castle Garden, America’s first official immigration center, was open.

It appears, that under the Naturalization Law of 1802 and the Homesteaders Act of 1862, my ancestors could apply for citizenship after meeting the residency requirement of five years. They simply walked into their local courthouse, produced evidence of residency, and were deemed citizens.

I’m sure it wasn’t truly as easy as that one sentence. In fact, as I’ve been looking at bits and pieces of my family history, I think there’s a story or two that I need to research: I have photocopies of a German ancestor’s Certificate of Citizenship (photo above), but we only assume my Scandinavian immigrant ancestors became citizens based on our knowledge of the Homestead Act. We have no documents and, to be honest, have never been curious about them. Now, I am.

It’ll take some time to track down the stories and find the documents, but when I do, I’ll take a picture of my mom holding them. I’m sure her smile will be just as big as the smiles in this photo. Note especially the two standing: Last week, they passed the interview/test and are holding their Certificates of Naturalization.

Back row:  Maria, Vanessa
Front row:  Ana, Santos Virginia, Pao Pao, Jose, Joel

Wondering what takes to become a Naturalized Citizen? Check out this brochure: 10 Steps to Naturalization. Then, see how much you remember from YOUR civics classes: Civics Flash Cards