February 8, 2017

Tuat Nguyen and Thuong Vo are among nearly 40 attendees at this free class to prepare for the citizenship exam

“In-div-is-i-ble.” Jesse Prichard sounds out each syllable. Dozens of accented voices repeat the word, sounding out vowels, which Prichard writes on a whiteboard.

“What do you look at during the Pledge of Allegiance?” he asked. They look at the flag, one man said.

The citizenship class at Lutheran Community Services Northwest is packed on this Tuesday night with residents preparing for the lengthy, cumbersome and costly process of petitioning to become U.S. Citizens.

“It’s an intimidating process,” said Annie Ruonavaara Karas, the program coordinator for Lutheran’s Citizenship and English class series. “They question you about your life, where you came from, everywhere you’ve lived.”

But one of the best parts of the free 12-week course, Ruonavaara Karas said, is that Lutheran has accredited legal advisers who help petitioners fill out their N-400 form and determine whether they qualify for a waiver of the $725 fee.

Lutheran and Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon both offer the classes, funded by a 2-year, $250,000 grant from the federal office of United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. Other programs including those offered through Multnomah County libraries, offer citizenship education too. But these two programs have skilled staff to walk families through the application process.

“We provide a lot of services and support,” she said. “It’s a long process. Some people can navigate the system. Others are a little concerned about their English and they want some community.”

The program is open to any permanent resident who qualifies for citizenship. Often classes are 10 to 15 people. But some, like the Tuesday night class, get big.

In the back of the community room two girls crouch, still bundled in pink jackets, over a pink plastic castle with heart-shaped windows. Long tables crowd the room, where participants crouch over sheets of paper, writing out all the names of U.S. states they can remember.

Belen and Martin each take a sheet. She writes San Francisco, then erases it. Behind them Abraham and Yolanda start with Oregon, then California, North Carolina, Las Vegas. Then Yolanda erases Las Vegas and replaces it with Nevada.

Mohamud Ali has lived in the United States since he was 11. But the elections prompted him to apply for citizenship.

Volunteer John Digiacinto passes out thick glossy copies of Citizenship: Passing the Test. He said the 2016 presidential election prompted him to volunteer, “to do something constructive.”

Digiacinto hands a book to 23-year-old Mohamud. Originally from Somalia, Mohamud resettled to Oregon when he was 11, along with his younger brother. They have been a permanent residents for a decade, he said, but the elections prompted him to finalize his citizenship.

Mohamud, who went through Portland Public Schools, quickly wrote out a long list of states before the class moved on to trivia:

“What’s the name of this ocean?” teacher Prichard asked, pointing to the East Coast.

“The Atlantic,” a man named Francisco shouted from the back of the room.

“Name a state that borders Canada,” Prichard said. “Montana,” Francisco said.

“Does anyone know the Governor’s name?” Prichard asked. “Kate Brown,” Francisco replied.

Francisco, and his table mates Jeronimo and Veronica, were fresh from another series of citizenship classes, those offered at Multnomah County's Holgate Library. The teacher at Holgate recommended they take the class at Lutheran to keep fresh on their civics and take advantage of the free legal aid in completing their applications.

Each of them has lived in the United States for more than a decade, each has U.S. born children, and each has legal permanent residence. Yet all three felt compelled to apply because of President Donald Trump’s changes to immigration policy.

“I’m scared,” said Veronica. “A lot of people are talking about it. They’re scared.”

Francisco said he was afraid of being deported despite his legal status, and said he wanted to make sure his family could stay together.

“I just want to be safe and be with my family,” he said. “I want to be with my kids.”


More (free) places you can go

Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon: This resettlement agency offers the same 12-week program as Lutheran Community Services NW, including assistance completing and filing the citizenship application.

The Refugee Center Online: offers a free 30-class series, all online covering civics, history, and government.

Libraries: Multnomah County offers free 6- and 8-week class series periodically throughout the year.

Goodwill: offers free classes in the Salem, Portland and Vancouver areas.