By Isabella Soto, Medill, Immigrant Connect
The soft sound of chalk traveling across the deep green chalkboard fills the room. Flakes of white talc float down to the floor. “Independence day,” one student writes. “In the pendence day,” writes another. After reflecting on his spelling for a moment, he laughs, then uses the back of his hand to delicately erase his misspelling and correct the word. As both struggle to use “independence day” in a sentence, two latecomers find their way into the basement of Centro Romero and sit down at a desk.
Martha Espinosa, the day’s instructor, shuffles the stack of 100 crimson flash cards, each printed with the 100 questions that constitute the United States’ citizenship exam. For the remainder of the two-hour class, the students will repeatedly run through these questions, memorizing details such as the age at which United States citizens can vote and how many justices serve on the Supreme Court. They all manage to answer at least six out of ten questions, and Espinosa excitedly congratulates each student on a passing score.
In a political climate in which nativist, xenophobic, and anti-immigrant sentiments have been coupled with President Donald Trump’s two attempts at instituting his Executive Order,“Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States,” citizenship classes have become a safe haven for Chicago’s immigrant communities, with centers that were often empty now filled to the brim with immigrants – some eager, some fearful – ready to become U.S. citizens.
Maria Calleros, Intake Specialist at Instituto de Progreso Latino (Institute for Latino Progress), says Instituto has seen a huge influx of people signing up for citizenship courses.
On any given day in 2016, citizenship classes at Instituto had about three or four students and it took almost two months to get a full group and start classes, Calleros recalls. After the election, however, she says, they grew to having up to 15 people in one day.
“Since Trump was inaugurated, the people have come running, even if they aren’t prepared with English,” says Calleros.
Centro Romero, a community-based organization in Rogers Park that provides services for immigrants across Chicago’s Northside, has also seen
noticeable increases in citizenship class size, as has Chinatown’s Pui Tak Center.
“On Saturdays now we have classes of 30 students where [before the election] we used to have maybe five or six students,” says Charlie Johnson, lead instructor at Centro Romero.
Walt Schoenfuhs, adult dducation and training manager at Pui Tak, says that at this time last year, there would have been about 80 or 90 students taking citizenship classes. Today, that number is up to 160.
“We kind of already know, but we tease them and ask, ‘Well why?’” Schoenfuhs says. “And we ask if it’s because of Trump and they say ‘yes.’”
For Pui Tak, the demand for citizenship classes has skyrocketed to the point where they’ve had to close off enrollment for classes, start up new classes, and close those off as well. Schoenfuhs says that one year ago, ten percent of their student body was in citizenship classes. Today that number has climbed to 24 percent.
There is a palpable urgency among the students who are filling up these classes, wanting to take action before any new legislation or attacks on immigrants and the undocumented take place.
“They worry because they want to take the exam immediately,” says Calleros. “But they have to take English classes before taking the exam because the process is in English. We’ve had people turned away from their exams because they didn’t know enough English.”
Angel Fajardo, who immigrated from Mexico and has been a lawful permanent resident for the past 10 years, has been eligible to become a United States citizen for the past five years. He and his son Areli, 26, began citizenship classes at the end of March, making them two of the students who’ve been in Espinosa’s for the longest.
Sitting in a desk wearing a grey and white collared shirt, Fajardo’s face breaks out in a smile when Espinosa calls on him for a rapid-fire round of citizenship questions. He answers all the questions correctly, only pausing once to ask Espinosa to repeat the question. Despite his readiness and pre-Trump plans to take the citizenship exam, Fajardo acknowledges the concern and fear that is driving many to begin taking citizenship classes.
“To be frank, though, many people are afraid because of Donald Trump,” Fajardo says in his native Spanish.
Many are demoralized and uncertain about what’s going to happen, and both Johnson and Calleros say that there’s a particular fear among those with small brushes with the law or with misdemeanors. To them, moving toward citizenship is a move that helps guarantee their safety in the United States. After receiving an appointment from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service, they have an interview with a USCIS officer in which they are expected to pass the ten-question exam, complete a reading and writing portion of the exam, and successfully complete a final verification and read-through of their application.
“A lot of students have voiced that they want to become citizens so that they have complete protection,” says Johnson.
The citizenship classes themselves have become a place where students can voice fears and concerns within their immigrant communities. Johnson says that there’ve been conversations in which students have talked about their concerns with the travel ban, with Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and with February’s Day Without Immigrants.
Another major concern has been the presence of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in certain Chicago neighborhoods. Johnson says there have been times when the classes have been abuzz with rumors that ICE was patrolling the area around Centro Romero or in other immigrant neighborhoods.
“There were a lot of questions and we had a couple of meetings together to explain what the information was as we knew it,” Johnson says. “Even students who are citizens were trying to help be part of that conversation and practice what happens if someone knocks on your door.”
Those at Pui Tak share the same fears of law enforcement. In April, Pui Tak hosted a presentation on what to do, what not to do, and what one’s rights are if they are ever confronted by ICE. For many in the Chinese community, citizenship is a way to assuage these fears.
“There is a fear of police among the Chinese community, partly because of their experience in China,” Schoenfuhs says. “We’ve had police come in here, CPD come in here, and assure them that they would not turn them into ICE. They’re very afraid of reporting crimes.”
For many students that evening in Centro Romero’s blue-toned basement, fear was not their motivation for taking citizenship classes.
One student, wearing an American flag tank top, cited her undocumented husband as her primary motivation for citizenship. Fajardo mentioned how he is simultaneously taking English as a Second Language (ESL) courses to better communicate with his three-year old daughter and to help her with her homework in the future. Others echoed similar themes: family, stability, responsibility, and a simple desire to want to give back to a country that they feel has given them so much.
“I am taking citizenship classes to be able to do something for this country,” Fajardo says. “To contribute my small grain of sand to make this country a better place.”