Beginning the path to citizenship in Ardmore
Editor's note: this is the first story in a series highlighting the U.S. citizenship process in southern Oklahoma. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has designated Sept. 17 as Citizenship Day in the United States, which is also Constitution Day marking the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. Continue reading The Ardmoreite throughout the month of September for stories about local immigrants who have recently become U.S. citizens.
For about five years, dozens immigrants from around the world have, for one reason or another have relocated to southern Oklahoma. The paths that started in far-flung locations from South America to Asia are as unique from one another as their languages and cultures, but they all share a common thread in a room near Grand Avenue and E Street Northwest.
Because in that time, each of them has passed through classes at the Ardmore Public Library specifically geared toward helping them prepare for and navigate the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service. Thanks to efforts by literacy and outreach librarian Elizabeth Gaylor, a class that first helped only a few people become citizens has evolved into a program capable of helping more than a dozen through the process in less than a year.
“It’s just been a constant ramp-up of students being enrolled and students getting their citizenship,” Gaylor said.
The most recent class session – offered for free thanks primarily to grants – started last week and will continue for the next 12 weeks helping almost two dozen people who hope to soon become full-fledged Americans.
“But it’s not still too late to jump in because the first class we just reviewed what the expectation of the citizenship process is. The actual first lesson will start this next week,” she said on Friday.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, general eligibility to apply for citizenship is granted to legal residents of at least five years. While exams and interviews are mostly done in English, some applicants can forego English tests and take the civics portion of the test in their native language.
Gaylor said the classes at Ardmore Public Library will help prepare students for portions of the exam that focus on writing, reading and civics, but said that a few students are preparing to take the test in Spanish, as well. A vast majority of students already speak conversational English and Gaylor, who also speaks fluent Spanish, said that classes are almost exclusively in English.
“I don’t even really explain a whole lot in Spanish. I try not to because you’re taking it in English, we need to focus and be in English primarily,” she said.
Students meeting on Wednesday evenings have already been given their Form N-400 but will not actually submit it until the end of the semester. As they study American civics and practice reading and writing in English throughout the semester, students are told to begin reviewing the 20-page naturalization form and gathering information, which can be quite laborious.
“The one thing that trips a lot of people up is the trips outside of the country. With a lot of my students who happen to be from Mexico — Mexico is right next door — they go home quite a bit, so it adds up. There’s a whole section where you have to know exactly how many days you were out of the country (and) how many trips you were out of the country within the last five years. For some people it’s an easy thing, but if you go once or twice a year the trips add up,” said Gaylor.
Once classes are completed and N-400 forms are reviewed and submitted, Gaylor said the waiting game begins. Before the pandemic, applicants would wait about four months before scheduling interviews and finding out if they’ve been granted citizenship. Since the pandemic started, that time has almost doubled which means more time between the final class and their interviews with the Department of Homeland Security.
So a few weeks before their interview, students will catch back up with Gaylor to refresh their knowledge for about four weeks and go through a mock interview to better prepare. Much of the timing of the classes has evolved since starting in 2016 through what Gaylor called trial-and-error.
“A lot of my students have told me that’s like the best part of the prep for them is coming in and doing that practice interview,” she said.
Since the first group of students became U.S. citizens in 2017, Gaylor has added one part-time position to the program and hopes to soon expand that position to full-time. Thanks to $28,000 in grants distributed by the Oklahoma Department of Libraries since last year, printed material like pocket guides and flash cards were also updated to remove some rather dated items from use last year.
“They are so dated that some of the flash cards still have President Obama on them as the president,” Gaylor said, referring to President Barack Obama who left office in January 2017.
Many former students — some barely over 30 years old with children and others over 70 — have stayed in touch with Gaylor even after becoming U.S. citizens. With Facebook providing an easy channel for invitations to birthday parties, baby showers and weddings, she enjoys keeping up with former students and their families.
Some former students and their families also stay in touch for help from a bilingual resource at the public library to help overcome language barriers with documents or other information. Recently, some of the class’s first students also shared photos with Gaylor immediately after they reached an important milestone for many new citizens last November.
“It makes me really proud that they’re using one of the most important rights that are given to citizens, and that is to vote,” Gaylor said.