My husband is British. I remember sitting in what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) office soon after our wedding waiting to be interviewed so that he could get his green card. It was October, 2001 and there were very few people in the waiting room. Our immigration lawyer said that since 9/11 many of his clients had been showing up for their interviews and getting arrested, so many had stopped coming.
Though our joint credit card seemed to matter more to the INS officer than our wedding album, Graham’s green card was approved. I realized that day that Graham and I had European/white skin privilege in our petition for his immigration status.
Since then he has remained a permanent resident and isn’t planning on becoming a citizen. He doesn’t worry about his immigration status; there have been no threats of deportation or losing his green card. But his experience is not the same as many immigrants who come from other countries.
Last month I visited AFSC’s program in Florida that supports Haitians in becoming citizens. Paul-Andre Mondesir, AFSC’s Haitian community social advocate, and I drove to a strip mall in Fort Lauderdale where he has been teaching weekly citizenship classes for several years.
When we arrived, fifteen of Paul’s Haitian students were waiting outside the small store front that houses the Haitian community center where he teaches. Many were admitted to the United States after the 2010 earthquake. They had been granted Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and subsequently had become permanent residents. But unlike my husband, they are more vulnerable to detention or deportation if they do not become citizens.
For these earthquake survivors, the stakes are high. Some have taken the citizenship test and failed before; many are frightened of the consequences of failure. And for so many, this class is the only support available for preparing for the test.
Paul’s students greeted him warmly and talked with each other in Creole while he set up. One woman was clearly sick with a cold, but she said that being there was important to her--she didn’t want to miss one class. Paul set up a computer and projector and reviewed the content of the citizenship test in both Creole and English. Then students stood and practiced taking the test. Questions included, “What does the constitution do?” “What are two cabinet level positions?” and “Why does the flag have 13 stripes?” As each student stood, Paul gave them advice on presentation style.
At the end of the class, Paul invited the students to stay and speak with me. They told me why citizenship was important to them. A man said, “After the test you can vote and you can find a job or petition for your family.”
A woman with a huge smile said, “I plan on being a citizen for myself and no one else.”
One woman told me about her journey to the United States, “I came in a boat with 145 others. We passed by Cuba, it took 17 days. On the journey they gave me food, we prayed. The reason I came here is because my family can't help me, I came to help my family, and I came for the freedom. I have only myself. I used to work in construction building traffic signals, but I got hurt, now I work in the laundry.”
A few of the students talked about Paul-Andre’s teaching. One man said, “I’ve learned a lot, Dr. Paul helps us, he is a king of patience.”
Another student said, “Dr. Paul gives us tips: on pronunciation and how to take the test; he says when you take the test, pray to God. Now I’m not afraid. It gives me energy; if you listen, you will learn.”
After speaking with me, the students stood and joyfully sang the Haitian national anthem in Creole.
“For our forebears,
For our country
Let us toil joyfully.
May the fields be fertile
And our souls take courage.
Let us toil joyfully.”
As Paul and I drove back to Miami, he told me that one of his students was taking the test the next day and that he would call her for a review that night. He talked about his hopes for his students and the class. He is happy that they will be more secure and can petition for loved ones, but he also teaches them so that they know how to work within the community to make a difference together.
I’m hopeful that the immigration reforms being considered in Congress will help to make all immigrants’ experience more equitable, regardless of country of origin, skin tone, or whether they are able to pass the citizenship test. I’m hopeful that families will be able to stay together, as mine has been able to do.
I’m excited to see what impact Paul’s students might have on their community as they “toil joyfully.”
See a slide show of the citizenship class.
See AFSC's seven principles for a new path toward a humane immigration policy.