By Heidi Hall, The Tennessean
The cavernous conference room was nearly empty except for Maria
Evans, silently occupying a seat near the end of the second row, trying
not to look nervous.
On one side sat her husband, Robert, a
native-born American citizen. On the other side, her sample citizenship
test booklet, meticulously wrapped in red Christmas paper, offering what
she hoped would be a gift of family stability, her dream job and the
chance to vote.
After seven years of lawyers, paperwork and studying,
Maria Evans watched minutes tick away before an interview at the
Nashville Public Library, one that would make or break her attempt to
become a naturalized U.S. citizen. It was the last step, the end of an
immigration process so lengthy, confusing and expensive that it keeps
many in the shadows of regular American life.
"In banking, I've
realized the importance of becoming a citizen to get a specific
position," the Clarksville, Tenn., resident said in perfect English,
using grammar she started learning in Mexico. "It has been a barrier."
thousand immigrants became citizens last year through the U.S.
Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Memphis, which serves
Tennessee and parts of Arkansas and Mississippi. It costs $680 for the
naturalization application alone, never mind thousands more spent on lawyers and trips to Memphis.
in recent years, the government and nonprofit groups that help
immigrants have worked harder to reduce the stress. They cite the
benefits of encouraging citizenship for immigrants to America. It allows
them to hold federal jobs, speak English more proficiently and
participate fully in the nation's political processes.
workers held 40 interviews Tuesday at the library to help people such as
Evans expedite her path to citizenship. To help cut down on trips to
Memphis, Lynuel Dennis, director of that field office, said employees
are trying to schedule more sessions across the state.
people aren't spending for a hotel or extra food costs. We're trying to
see what would be our ultimate area for off-site interviews," she said.
"We're trying to make the process more accessible and user-friendly."
answered 10 questions about American history and government, proved
they could understand and write English, and clarified points on their
applications. Maria Evans passed, and soon she'll find out when she can
be sworn in as a citizen.
Nashville-based nonprofit Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition will hold a workshop on Saturday, offering free legal advice
and application fee waivers to help legal permanent residents move into
citizenship. One in April attracted triple the number organizers
They also hope to let native-born Americans know how
challenging it can be for people who choose to play by the rules to
become naturalized citizens.
Not a simple process
When typical native-born Americans think about immigrants, they think
about Latin American farmworkers or nannies, said Flavia Jimenez,
director of integration policy for the nonprofit National Immigration Forum. They also think naturalization is a simple process.
plays into our ineffective policy on immigration," she said. "It
doesn't paint a clear picture of who we are as a nation. There are a lot
of myths about who the immigrants are, the face of the immigrant
The largest number of naturalized citizens in
Tennessee came from India in 2010, the most recent year for detailed
U.S. Department of Homeland Security data. Mexico was second, and Egypt
third. Most were in professional or management careers.
Paths to citizenship are numerous,
but here's the basic way: Immigrants must first be sponsored by an
employer or relative for legal permanent residency, more commonly known
as a green card.
After five years - or three if married to a U.S.
citizen - the real work begins. First, there's a limit on how many
potential citizens will be taken from each country. Candidates file a
naturalization application, including copies of their fingerprints,
which costs $680. That doesn't include paying a lawyer to help with the
After they file, they must stay in the U.S. until their interview.
It's frustrating when native-born Americans don't understand how much it takes, said Celina Alvarez,
a Franklin resident who will attend Saturday's TIRRC workshop. She
moved to the U.S. from Jalisco, Mexico, 18 years ago and takes orders
for a local fan company.
Her sons, 18 and 10, are citizens because
they were born here, and the oldest pressured her to become
naturalized. An employer sponsored her husband and her to get a green
card - a process that took $18,000 in application and attorneys fees - but only Celina Alvarez feels prepared to move forward.
She's grateful for free help from TIRRC.
"People say, 'Why don't you just go get (citizenship)?'" she said. "It's very difficult, and it's not easy to get help.
looking forward to it. ... I'll have more opportunities, I'll be able to
vote. My son is really pressuring me to have it by the next election."
Gutierrez, who is coordinating the workshops for TIRRC, was expecting
40 people at the one April 1, was prepared for 60 but was overwhelmed by
120. It demonstrates how much people want to be Americans, she said.
can't deny that, if they are citizens or not, America is made up of
people who came from all across the world," Gutierrez said. "The only
way to have this reflected in the policies is to have them become