In a conference room in the basement of Bemis Public Library, a group of hopeful people spend their Tuesday mornings preparing for the moment that will determine whether they become United States citizens.
“I want to have a voice,” said Ruth …
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"I want to have a voice," said Ruth Alonso of Denver, who emigrated from Mexico six years ago.
Alonso is a student in a citizenship class at the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center, preparing for her naturalization interview with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officers.
Reasons for becoming a citizen vary, but the desire to vote is commonly cited in election years, said Petula McShiras, an attorney and the supervisor of the center, which is housed in the library and offers legal assistance and English-as-a-second-language courses in addition to the citizenship classes.
Other reasons include the ability to petition for a green card for family members, McShiras said, as well as a sense of security.
"They want to say 'Yes, I am an American,' " she said.
Deb Schaffer, the citizenship program coordinator, prepares students for their interview, during which they must pass a test on speaking, reading and writing English as well as an oral exam on American civics.
"It's hard to prepare people for whom English is a struggle," Schaffer said, noting that they may misunderstand the questions asked during the interview.
All five students in the June 7 class came from Latin America, but Schaffer said classes will often include students from Asian and European countries as well.
Class lengths vary from four to 14 weeks, but students can come back as many times as they need to be prepared for the interview. Currently, citizen hopefuls' interviews are scheduled three to four months out from when their applications are sent in.
"People really want to change their lives," Schaffer said. "But it's my job to make sure they're ready."
Schaffer prepares students by running through a battery of sample questions, sometimes in the form of a game, such as throwing a ball around the class, with the person it is tossed to being asked a question.
Questions cover topics such as the names of key government figures, the powers and responsibilities of the three branches of government and what rights are protected by the First Amendment.
Eleazar Rios, who passed his citizenship interview on June 6, attended the class for four months and said the program prepared him well. Rios returned to class the day after his interview with a big smile and a tray of enchiladas to share his success.
"I'm feeling good," said Rios, who lives in Parker and emigrated from Mexico 16 years ago.
Another Mexican immigrant who recently earned his citizenship continues to come to class as a volunteer to help others prepare for their interview.
"I like to help people," said Jose Hernandez-Pimental, who passed his interview in April after deciding last August to pursue his dream of becoming a citizen with more focus.
He helps tutor students who need additional help with English, including Candida Ortiz, an El Salvadoran immigrant who has her interview later in June.
Hernandez-Pimental, a diesel mechanic at Denver International Airport, had worked toward becoming a citizen before, but family and work obligations got in the way. In addition to classes at the library, he credits his wife and in-laws with supporting him. One reason he became a citizen is that it allows him to apply for government jobs.
"Last year I decided I have to do it," he said.
He got a CD to help him study for the test while he drove.
"No matter where I was going," he said, "that was playing."
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