On Thursday nights in the Bank Iowa meeting room in Denison, immigrants study the book in front of them, preparing to fill out Form N-400 and familiarizing themselves with the process of becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States of America.
Naturalization, or citizenship, classes are offered twice a year in 10-week sessions through the Cultural Diversity Committee.
Form N-400 is the application for naturalization under the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).
Teachers, community members, high school students and others help immigrants understand the questions on the form and the questions they may be asked during the naturalization interview and tests.
The classes are something that Mario Flores, an employee of Bank Iowa and the chair of the Cultural Diversity Committee, had wanted to start for years and finally did so a number of years ago.
The citizenship classes first started in Denison as a ministry of the church for which Flores is the pastor, the United Pentecostal Church Rock of Salvation.
The Crawford County Latino Ministerial Association later became the host organization for the classes. For about the past year the Cultural Diversity Committee has been the host.
At one time the citizenship classes took place in a dining room, then at Flores’s church and then at Norelius Community Library. For the past year the Bank Iowa meeting room has served as the class space.
Many people work together to make the classes possible.
Along with Flores, those who help are Crystal Holt, Denison High School government teacher and a member of the Cultural Diversity Committee; Michelle Kasperbauer, special education and visual arts teacher at the high school; Kayla Miller, Bank Iowa staff members and a member of the Cultural Diversity Committee; and Denison High School students who are bilingual.
Helping with the citizenship classes is good experience for the students, providing them with community service opportunities, said Flores.
“Their help has been wonderful,” he added.
Flores continued that others come to the classes from time to time to offer their expertise on subjects immigrants should know. Among those are Susanna Lee with Western Iowa Tech Community College; Crawford County Auditor Terri Martens, who has explained the process of voting and registration; and Clemente Velasco with 48th Street Income Tax Services. Velasco is familiar with immigration and the naturalization application process, Flores said.
He explained for an immigrant to be eligible to apply for citizenship, they must be a legal permanent resident (green card holder) for at least five years. However, if a spouse is a U.S. citizen, the time required is three years.
Other requirements are being at least age 18, continuous residence in the United States, a physical presence in the United States, a certain amount of time living in the jurisdiction of a USCIS office, good moral character, knowledge of English and U.S. civics and an attachment to the U.S. Constitution.
The classes also prepare students to understand the questions and to answer in English about themselves and about U.S. history and civics.
Students study 100 U.S. history and civics questions. Ten are asked during the naturalization test; an applicant must correctly answer six.
“Immigrants should know about the nation, how it was founded and how the government works, what we are a part of,” said Flores.
Applicants also have to take a test to prove they can read and write in English.
Flores explained many of the questions asked in the interview process are about the applicant – name, address, date of birth and marital status, for example.
In the class, students go over the 50 questions on the application that deal with moral character.
Two questions are important for applicants to learn to ask, and to not be afraid to ask during the interview, Flores said. They are “Can you please repeat the question?” and “Can you please explain the question to me?”
“The immigration officer will explain that. It is their job,” he said.
Applicants are understandably nervous and anxious when interviewed by the immigration officer, Flores said. Going through the class to understand the process will help lessen the anxiety.
If the interview goes well, the immigration officer will recommend the applicant for citizenship. They will then be notified by letter when the next naturalization ceremony will take place so they can take the oath of citizenship. In some cases the ceremony could be the same day as the interview.
At the ceremony, people pledge allegiance to the United States and its laws and receive a citizenship certificate. They turn in their green cards.
Flores said when he started the classes as a church ministry, students weren’t charged a class fee. Everything was provided, even the printing of the applications.
The classes began with three students and within a year that number had grown to 19.
Flores noticed, however, that since the class was free, very few of the students were applying to become U.S. citizens. He began charging a $25 fee, which was given to the Temporary Aid Program, the local food pantry. Class numbers decreased but about 80 percent of the students were applying to become citizens, he said.
The class fee today is $50, and all the learning materials students need are supplied.
Flores said the $50 fee barely covers the Cultural Diversity Committee’s cost to print the book. Some fundraising to help with costs may be planned for the future.
The students are responsible for the fees for the naturalization process, of course. That fee is currently $640, and applicants under the age of 75 must pay an $85 biometric services fee. The word is going around that the application fee for naturalization may increase to $1,200 soon, Flores added.
Flores has another mission for the Cultural Diversity Committee - to develop a class or program to educate immigrants about retirement. He said immigrants may have retirement benefits where they work but as a banker he sees some lack of understanding.
Flores said as a servant of the community, he wants to help people who have worked all their lives here to be able to use the retirement benefits they are offered. He said it is part of helping immigrants to be successful and to make a better country.