Last year when then-Lt. Gov. Mike Parson was sworn in June 1 as Missouri’s 57th governor, following the resignation of Gov. Eric Greitens, Melanie Schmitt was quick to text a few of the students in the free monthly citizenship classes she teaches at Washington Public Library.
She wanted to be sure they were aware of the sudden change in case they were specifically asked about the Missouri governor during the interview portion of their naturalization test.
For more than a year now, Schmitt has been helping immigrants study and prepare for their citizenship tests. It’s a volunteer service that grew out of her work as a literacy tutor with Four Rivers Area YMCA.
Becoming an American citizen isn’t easy. There’s a lot of information to know and understand, such as:
What is the supreme law of the land?
How many amendments does the Constitution have?
What are the first three words of the Constitution?
Those are just some of the 100 questions immigrants could be asked in the civics portion of their naturalization test. An applicant is asked up to 10 questions out of a possible 100 and has to answer six correctly during an oral interview in order to pass, said Schmitt.
And that is just the beginning.
Applicants also must prove their understanding of the English language through speaking, reading and writing tests.
Schmitt enjoys working with immigrants to help them on their path to citizenship. There is a great sense of satisfaction that comes from it, she said.
“They text me after their interview to say, ‘I passed!’ and that feels good,” said Schmitt, with a smile.
Classes Held First, Second Wednesdays
These free citizenship classes, which are offered by the Four Rivers Area Y Literacy program in partnership with the Washington Public Library, are held on the first and second Wednesdays of the month from 5 to 7 p.m. in the meeting room near the entrance of Washington Public Library, 410 Lafayette St.
People do not need to register to attend, and they can begin attending at any time.
Schmitt is quick to point out that not every immigrant is eligible to apply for American citizenship. Only those with who have a “green card,” which is a type of visa, are eligible, she said, so that is one of the first things she goes over with students.
“They are the only visa holders who are eligible at this point for citizenship. If you don’t have a green card, then you stop,” said Schmitt. “There are lots of different types of visas — tourist, student, work . . . The ones we work with are green cards, which are permanent legal residents.”
There are several other eligibility requirements, which are spelled out by USCIS (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services), said Schmitt. These include age (18 and older) and residency requirements.
The idea to offer a citizenship class began in 2017 with the Y literacy program.
“We realized citizenship was one of the issues for some of our literacy students,” said Diane Schwab, Y literacy coordinator.
As a literacy tutor, Schmitt was working with a literacy student to help him prepare for the citizenship test, and she wasn’t alone. Several of the literacy tutors were working one-on-one with their students to practice for the citizenship test.
“So we began to talk about it in meetings, and we realized there was a need,” said Schmitt, who volunteered to be the instructor.
The first citizenship classes were held in October 2017 at Washington Public Library.
Library Director Claire Miller said the library is proud to be involved with the program.
“It’s important to people, and we’re able to offer it for free,” said Miller.
The library already had a set of Citizenship Tool Kits featuring flash cards, books and DVDs that people could check out to help them prepare for the test, and it has since added a couple of other books specifically designed to help people study for citizenship.
“The tool kits and the other books are on the shelves for anyone to check out, so if someone can’t come to the class or doesn’t want to, they can take the kit home and use it to prepare,” said Miller. “It is available to everyone.”
Teaches to the Test
The number of people who attend the monthly citizenship classes is small, said Schmitt. Typically only a few people show up each time, and she structures each class based on who shows up and what they need to work on.
Since the classes began, Schmitt has worked with between eight and 10 students from a variety of countries. Some had been living in America for a long time and only now were applying for citizenship. Some already speak English very well, said Schwab. Others still struggle, which makes the citizenship class even more useful.
For that reason, some of the citizenship students bring along their literacy tutor to the classes, said Schwab, noting the relationships between tutors and students is often very close.
When new students show up for class, Schmitt tries to ease them into the lessons.
“I pick 20 questions out of the 100 civics questions that they probably already know — Who is the current president of the United States? Name one of the two longest rivers in the United States? The Missouri River here is one. What was the name of the first U.S. president? It’s the same name as our town. What is the capital of the United States? Again, the same as our town. And that is a boost to their confidence,” said Schmitt.
The classes are geared specifically toward what information is asked on the test, and nothing more.
“There is a lot of U.S. history, so we only cover the history that is asked on the test,” said Schmitt. “There are specific reading and writing words to know. There are more than 70 reading vocabulary words to know and more than 70 writing vocabulary words to know.”
The reading test and writing test each contain up to three sentences, and the applicants must read and write at least one correctly to demonstrate their ability.
The list of words is provided to the students so they can study them, and also on the tests, there may be some overlap between the words students will be asked to read and write.
“The USCIS does not want people to fail,” said Schmitt. “We say it’s difficult to become a U.S. citizen, but it’s also pretty straightforward.”
In addition to Schmitt working with the citizenship students to help them learn, the students like to test each other.
“It’s good for people to hear another person’s voice asking the information,” said Schmitt, explaining that it helps to hear the words said out loud by different people so students can really be tested on their understanding.
In addition to helping people prepare for the civics and English tests that are required to earn citizenship, Schmitt also helps each one complete the 22-page N-400 application, which includes basic questions like name, address, family background, employment, education and children, as well as a number of questions intended to measure a person’s moral character — which is another of the eligibility requirements, said Schmitt.
“Most of the questions are Yes and No, and they are asking if you are a bad person, but during the interview, the interviewer may ask, ‘Have you ever advocated, directly or indirectly, to overthrow a government by use of force?’ ” said Schmitt. “The answer is No, but then the interviewer may ask you to explain what does it mean ‘directly or indirectly’?
“So now the person may not understand what they are being asked . . . and that becomes a longer lesson,” said Schmitt.
Completing the N-400 can be complicated, so it’s one of the last things Schmitt helps her students with.
After they mail in the application, along with the fee (which was $725 in 2018), they are called in right away to have their fingerprints taken and a background check completed, but it can take months before they are given a date for their interview and tests.
“I’ve had a couple of students who were fully prepared, and when they got notice of their interview, they came back in to class for review,” said Schmitt.
One student showed up to the classes for the first time after passing two of the requirements, but failing the interview. The applicant was tripped up by some of the words on the N-400 application.
“She came in, we practiced and, a few weeks later, she had a second opportunity,” said Schmitt, noting applicants don’t need to retake the portion of the test that was already passed. “She texted me that day to tell me she had passed.”
For Legal Immigrants Only
With all of the talk in the news about immigration, Schmitt stressed that the citizenship test is only an option for legal immigrants. And the class she teaches is only a means of educating immigrants on American history and the law.
“We are helping them prepare for the test and get their paperwork ready,” said Schmitt. “We are not granting them citizenship. That is determined by Homeland Security.
“We are simply providing the study materials as set forth by the USCIS for people to study. All the eligibility is through the government. Our students who have been successful are legal immigrants and people who have worked very hard and at an expense to receive their legal visas.”
Marcela Mata Flores, Marthasville, was one of Schmitt’s students who gained her American citizenship last year.
She had moved to America from Mexico in 2010 with her husband, an engineer, who had been hired by an American company. They lived in Virginia and Georgia before moving to Missouri.
In Mexico, Mata Flores had earned a degree in finance and worked as an accountant, but when she moved to America with her husband, she did not have a work visa that would allow her to apply for a job. Now she is a stay-at-home mother for the couple’s two young sons.
Both Mata Flores and her husband had already started the application process to become American citizens when she came across Schmitt’s citizenship classes and decided to attend.
She was waiting for her interview to be scheduled and was studying the booklet of 100 civics questions. Her English was very good, but she also was working with a Y literacy tutor.
Mata Flores only attended three or four citizenship classes before Schmitt felt confident that she was ready for the test, but she said those few classes were helpful.
“In the booklet you can see the question, answer and a brief description, but I was curious about the history, and Melanie had more details that I really wanted to know,” said Mata Flores with a smile. “If you are becoming a U.S. citizen, you want to know about the history.
“I think the citizenship classes are very helpful for people pursuing citizenship. Melanie knows the process, she has the booklet and helps you study them and giving you more information if you need it,” she added.
Since passing her naturalization test, Mata Flores has dual citizenship in America and Mexico.
“We have rights and obligations in both countries,” she remarked.