Immigration

In free citizenship class, impeachment announcement is a teaching moment

Just moments before Gilda Santalla started teaching her weekly citizenship class at the West Dade Regional Library Tuesday evening, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi provided what would become the day’s classroom lesson with the announcement of an official impeachment inquiry.

“Today is a great day to learn about democracy,” the chipper 72-year-old teacher told her students.

Facing Santalla inside a makeshift classroom on the library’s second floor was a group of 10 immigrants, all of them green card holders. They attend the free class to get help filling out the 20-page application for naturalization, and to prepare for the citizenship interview, which requires a basic grasp on both the English language and U.S. civics.

As they discussed Pelosi’s statement, most had a sense President Donald Trump was having a bad day. But only one student, Marina Maldonado, from Guatemala, was familiar with the i-word: impeachment.

As Santalla put it, the announced inquiry reflected an important truth about the group’s adopted homeland: in the United States, “no one is above is the law.”

“Can you list countries that have presidents who do whatever they want?” she asked. The group complied right away. “Venezuela! Nicaragua! El Salvador!” And after a beat: “China, Russia, North Korea.”

Santalla nodded. “Exactly. Si se puede hacer de todo, es una dictatorship (If you can do whatever you want, that’s a dictatorship),” she said. “And we have enough of them in Latin America.”

After reviewing the history of the Nixon resignation and the Clinton impeachment (“Monica Lewinsky” proved an easier term for the class to recall than “Watergate”), Santalla reminded her students that essential to the country’s commitment to the rule of law is the U.S. Constitution.

“We call the constitution the supreme law of the land,” she said. “Que nombre más bonito. (What a cute name).”

Santalla asked her class to keep up with the twists and turns of the impeachment inquiry on the news: “It’s good English practice.” Then, she ceded the class to a visiting representative from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the agency responsible for administering the naturalization process.

The representative shared insider tips about taking the test, but mostly assuaged people’s worries. “We’re not going to deny you citizenship if you’ve been speeding,” she told students in a discussion about the “good moral character” requirement of naturalization.

It was recommended, she added, for citizenship applicants to make sure they get their English up to snuff before walking in to the interview. Understanding and speaking the language remain the biggest obstacles for most. And shortcuts like memorizing the application form won’t work, the USCIS representative added, because even though officers who conduct the interviews will often ask about the same personal information found in the form, they will do so in a different order.

“You don’t want to find yourself answering ‘yes’ to ‘Have you ever been a prostitute?’ and ‘no’ to ‘Do you support the constitution?’”

The class concluded with a mock interview with Colombian national Jeanette Pacheco whose real interview is scheduled to take place in two weeks.

Pacheco showed confident and crisp English in her replies, only stumbling once, when she thought she had been asked “How many years have you been married for?” rather than “How many times have you been married?” She answered 33.

Her husband, seated across the room, pantomimed a shocked face.

“I was so nervous,” Pacheco said afterward. “It felt like the real thing.”

Free citizenship classes take place in public libraries across Miami-Dade Monday through Thursday and on Saturday. For more information, contact the Miami-Dade Public Library System.

Lautaro Grinspan is a bilingual reporter at the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald. He is also a Report for America corps member. Lautaro Grinspan es un periodista bilingüe de el Nuevo Herald y del Miami Herald, así como miembro de Report for America.
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