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At the Seattle Public Library, aspiring citizens receive support navigating the labyrinth that can be the citizenship process

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When was the Constitution written? Who is the current Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court? What is one thing Benjamin Franklin is famous for? These are all possible questions asked by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) officers during the civics portion of the U.S. naturalization interview. 

Naturalization, the process of a foreign-born person voluntarily becoming a U.S. citizen,  requires correctly answering at least six out of 10 civics questions in addition to passing English speaking, reading, and writing tests. 

Recognizing a need in the community for support navigating the application and interview process, the Seattle Public Library (SPL) began partnering with Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS) in July 2015 to offer a free, quarterly citizenship class. SPL has offered citizenship classes with a variety of community organizations for over 20 years, but ACRS is uniquely equipped to support applicants and provide citizenship instruction. 

Though considered basic U.S. civics knowledge, according to a 2018 national survey released by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, most Americans could not answer these naturalization questions correctly.

Only 36% of American survey-takers achieved a passing score on the multiple choice test that sampled from the USCIS questions; only 24% of the 1,000 individuals surveyed correctly identified one of Franklin’s claims to fame. 

Before even receiving an interview, aspiring citizens must work through an “Eligibility Worksheet.” Upon confirming eligibility, individuals may file a Form N-400, Application for Naturalization, which, at the Seattle USCIS office, can take anywhere between 15.5 to 17.5 months to process.

After processing, applicants will receive notice of their interview date or be subjected to a biometrics appointment preceding the interview. After, applicants will receive a decision.

The stakes are high for aspiring U.S. citizens as applicants receive only two opportunities to pass the English and civics tests before being forced to restart the naturalization process and pay the $640 filing fee. 

At SPL’s citizenship class, instructors provide greater clarity on the general naturalization process but focus primarily on the interview portion. Through activities like verbal introductions and dictation, explanations of idioms, and civics lessons, instructors seek to increase student comfort level with interviewing in English and answering civics questions. 

Form N-400 applicants may use Citizenshipworks, a free online service affiliated with ACRS which provides step-by-step naturalization guidance. SPL and ACRS recognized the need for an in-person class to serve students’ wide range of English abilities and digital literacy.

“It’s important to have different pathways of access so that people who face barriers can get the services they need,” Meira Jough, the SPL’s program coordinator, said in a phone call.

The class, which embodies the SPL’s core tenants of civic engagement and literacy, learning, and achievement ultimately seeks to encourage civic engagement and voting, connect class participants to the benefits of U.S. citizenship, and build relationships in the community. 

ACRS offers country-specific citizenship classes at their Mt. Baker location, but this aspect is especially relevant at the SPL’s class given the diverse students it attracts. 

According to Xiangping Chen, ACRS’s citizenship and immigration services program supervisor, countries of origin include Vietnam, Ukraine, Ethiopia, Mexico, Iran, China, and Canada.

“This class has had a nice community to it ... They share information on different resources and I think it helps them learn about different cultures too, which has been an unexpected delight,” McKenna Lang, a citizenship class instructor certified in English language teaching, said. 

Jough reiterated the importance of the SPL’s role in cultivating a strong sense of community throughout this “tough process.”

“It’s not easy to feel motivated to achieve something when you’re juggling all your adult responsibilities so that social community connection becomes even more important to help with being persistent in pursuing these goals,” Jough said. 

Despite the lengthy processing times and increased scrutiny of interviewees’ English abilities by USCIS officers cited by Chen, Lang remarked that “it is an exceptionally rewarding process.”

“I have some other jobs that I love doing … but there is something about teaching the immigration class and learning about peoples’ lives that is quite inspirational,” Lang said. “There is a very humanness about how we’re all trying to be in community.” 

The summer citizenship classes will be offered at the Central Library through Sept. 7 on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays. Students interested in the citizenship class or other immigration resources like SPL’s “Know-Your-Rights” cards and English classes can find additional information on the SPL website

Reach reporter Estey Chen at Twitter:@esteychen

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