SILER CITY — After three decades in the United States, Guatemalan native Dora Interiano finally achieved last December what she’d spent over a year working toward: U.S. citizenship.
To her, it makes a world of difference.
“I’m from Guatemala, but now I’m from here,” she told the News + Record in Spanish, smiling. “ … (Becoming a citizen) meant a lot. I felt like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. It was something that, well, can’t be explained very well, but it was a very, very special joy.”
It’s a joy she feels she owes to Chatham County Literacy Council, a Siler City nonprofit that offers free basic education to adults in Chatham County, with the help of volunteer tutors. Throughout its decade-long history, the nonprofit’s free citizenship preparation program has helped dozens of Chatham immigrants apply for citizenship and pass the test with flying colors — including Interiano and her husband José.
“The teachers were great people to us. They helped us a lot,” said Interiano, 50, adding, “Mainly thanks to God and thanks to them, we have citizenship. If it hadn’t been for them, I think we still wouldn’t have anything.”
Free to all, Chatham Literacy’s program teaches immigrants the basics of U.S. history and government, shores up their English-language skills and prepares them to ace the citizenship test, a multi-part interview conducted entirely in English, with few exceptions. Once students go through the class, staff and tutors also help them fill out the citizenship application form.
“We’re trained by USCIS [United States Citizenship and Immigration Services] themselves on how to complete the application,” Chatham Literacy’s Leslie Ocampo told the News + Record. She manages the citizenship preparation program as one of the nonprofit’s two program coordinators.
“We’ve been trained by the (USCIS) office in Charlotte on how to fill out the (application) and what kind of things the interviewers are looking out for on civic education for citizenship applicants,” she added, “you know, materials, things like that.”
Right now, Chatham Literacy offers three citizenship group classes, plus one-on-one tutoring sessions for those who need individualized attention. During the pandemic, classes went remote, and some have stayed remote, though students now have the option to resume in-person sessions.
“There’s preferences,” Ocampo said. “Some people don’t feel comfortable learning in a group, and some people do better in a group because they’re more talkative. They interact more, participate more, whatever. I think it’s great that we have options now.”
Right now, the program serves 19 students of various ages and backgrounds. Most come from Latin American countries, though they’ve had various students from the Middle East as well.
To sign up for the program, aspiring students can call 919-742-0578 to schedule an appointment. Staff will ask for students’ basic contact information, educational background and availability to match them with tutors. Only adults 18 years and up who live or work in Chatham are eligible for services.
Incoming students will also need to take literacy tests so that staff can place them in the appropriate classes or with the appropriate tutors.
“With those assessments … we establish a baseline where they can work from, and then we also match them with the appropriate materials,” Ocampo said. “If they are going to be in a group, it’s easier to divide students up based on their English literacy level, rather than just put everybody together. Well, if everybody’s together, then some people get left behind.”
Chatham Literacy’s citizenship preparation program officially began in 2009, but its roots first began sprouting about three years earlier when a poll worker noticed a big problem.
That poll worker was Bonnie Bechard, a former Chatham Literacy board member and volunteer.
“She realized that there was this population that could not understand the voting sheets, and they couldn’t understand anybody who could help them,” Chatham Literacy’s executive director, Vicki Newell, told the News + Record. “And so she’s like, ‘You know what? We need to have some literacy programs, and we need to help people to be able to become citizens. We need to help people to understand what their right is to be able to really make informed decisions when they actually get there.’”
Bechard soon found out one such program already existed, but had since gone dormant. She decided to rectify that: In 2008, she and others reorganized and reinvented Chatham Literacy. This new incarnation strove for a different and more encompassing sort of literacy — the kind that provides people with the tools to make informed decisions.
“Literacy back in the day was truly reading the printed word, and that no longer is true,” Newell said. “It is really about being able to understand, being able to process, being able to make informed decisions, being able to communicate … being able to advocate for yourself — all of that is literacy.”
In May of 2009, the citizenship program received its first student, and to date, Chatham Literacy has helped 125 people become U.S. citizens — and not a single one has failed to pass the exam on their initial application.
To become U.S. citizens, immigrants must go through a four-part process and meet a series of requirements. First up? Filling in a 20-page citizenship application called the N-400.
“It asks (for) five years of history — where you’ve lived, where you’ve gone to school, your kids, your spouse, have you ever been divorced, your ex-wife, your ex-husband, all of that good stuff,” Ocampo said, “and we help students fill it out, free of charge.”
But to even be eligible for that step, aspiring citizens must first have lived in the U.S. as permanent residents for at least five years. As part of the application process, people must also submit to a fingerprint-based background check. Upon submitting the N-400 and undergoing a biometric background check, aspiring citizens will then receive a test, or interview, date.
“So in that interview, they sit down with a United States immigration official and basically go over that entire application, and the immigration official asks questions about the history,” Ocampo said. “You know, ‘I see you’ve done this, I see you’ve done that,’ and they also have to answer 10 questions about the history of the United States, civic history as well.”
All 10 will come from a pool of about 100 questions. Out of those 10 questions, applicants have to correctly answer six to pass. After that, they then have to read three sentences in English and write another three in English thereafter.
“Now, it’s not just any three, you know,” said Joanne Caye, a tutor who’s been with Chatham Literacy since the citizenship program first began. “You can’t pick up Dickens and say, ‘Here read this.’ There are words that they are told that they have to know, and so the sentences usually include those words.”
Once the interview’s complete, applicants will know whether they passed on the spot. Before the pandemic, new citizens would receive a later date for their swearing-in ceremony, where a large group would swear allegiance together to the U.S., receive their “little flags” and certificates and celebrate with their friends and families.
“Now, right then and there, they'll tell you, ‘Congratulations, you're becoming a citizen,’” Ocampo said. “There's not going to be a big ceremony. Your friends and loved ones can't come see you being sworn in. It's just you, and then they give you your certificate and usher you out the door, unfortunately.”
To file the application and therefore jumpstart the process, applicants must pay a $725 fee. They then have two chances to pass the test without paying another $725 or resubmitting the application.
“So say they didn’t get all the questions right on the first try,” Ocampo said. “The official or the interviewer will be like, ‘OK, I see that you’re not ready. Let’s try again in three months,’ and automatically gives them another date to try again in three months without having to pay more than the application fee that they already paid or submit another application.”
But Chatham Literacy’s program seeks to ensure students get it right the first time. To prepare students for success, tutors help students learn all 100 questions and basic interviewing skills.
For adult learners who don’t speak fluent English, they’ll go over basic English literacy skills. Sometimes, that might mean starting from scratch. Caye recalls working with a student who’d tried to take the test twice before enrolling in Chatham Literacy’s program. He couldn’t read or write English at all.
“I went out and I found these books that have the little lines where you practice writing the letters and all that kind of stuff that you do for, like, kindergarteners,” Caye said. “So I got some of those, and we started working together. He was with me (for) two years, and in those two years, he bust his buns. … He passed. He did it great.”
Crucially, tutors also make sure students understand and can answer questions about their applications. Immigration officials will ask applicants to confirm or explain details they put down on their application forms, and one small slip-up can cost them the interview.
One question, for instance, asks applicants whether they’ve ever been detained by a police officer for any reason, Ocampo said. Sometimes, applicants won’t realize that may include a simple traffic stop, and that can cause trouble.
“So people’s automatic instinct is to say, ‘No, I’ve never been stopped,’ but then the interviewer will be like, ‘Well, I see on here that you have been stopped. Why did you just lie to me?’” she said. “That’s kind of a worst case scenario, but that’s why we’ve prepared students to learn to identify that language.”
Depending on each student’s literacy baseline, Newell said it may take students between six months to a year to complete the class, plus several additional months to complete the application process. Before the pandemic, the entire process, from filing the application to the interview, usually took three to four months. With the pandemic, however, that wait time has turned into a six-month backlog.
“Usually, it’s a month’s wait between each stage because you’ve got two important dates; you’ve got your biometrics date, and you’ve got your interview date,” Ocampo said. “So it’s about a month’s wait between those three to four months, but now we’re sitting on six months of waiting for even a biometric date here.”
"So," Newell added, "it does take a long time."
At first glance, Newell said, the program may seem like it just teaches to the test; that’s how she first viewed it when she arrived at Chatham Literacy a decade ago.
But now, a decade later, she said she knows that’s just not true: Many students walk away empowered with lifelong friendships and a deeper commitment to their community.
“It’s truly building our citizens so that they become engaged — it’s a lot about civic engagement in the community,” she said. “So what we see as a result is adults becoming involved in their community because they want to, coming back to learn English because they want to become part of a community. They vote because they now have a voice. So those are very powerful things.”
Siler City resident Suryah Zahmadi became a U.S. citizen in June of 2019 after nine months of hard work and one-on-one tutoring with Caye. She’s since exercised her right to vote in the past few elections.
“I like to vote,” she said with a smile.
Originally from Yemen, Zahmadi came to the U.S. in 2007 with her family. When she first arrived at Chatham Literacy, she didn’t speak much English, only Arabic. While she was growing up in Yemen, women weren’t allowed to go to school.
“She couldn’t read. The first alphabet she has learned is English,” Caye said, “and so she speaks Arabic, but where we are now, we worked and we worked and she got those questions right. And in fact, I went with her when she took her test. … When the examiner came out, he looked at me and said she was an honor to meet.”
Smiling, Caye added, “I’m so proud of her.”
Now, Zahmadi’s working with Caye to improve her English. Among her goals for the future? Master English so she can give back to her community by helping teach it to others.
She also wants to learn how to drive.
“I can do some things. I can answer in the telephone. I can now go to the doctor. Before, nothing,” Zahmadi told the News + Record. She added: “I was scared to go outside. ... I see people who speak to me. I (don’t) understand.”
Likewise, Interiano’s looking forward to voting in her first U.S. election — and beyond that, she also plans to continue improving her English so that she can one day change jobs.
Looking back, she remembers attending citizenship class two times a week right after she got off work. Sometimes, she’d stay up late writing, reading and listening to the 100 civics questions for hours at a time — and despite how difficult it was, she’d do it all over again.
“It’s worth it,” she said. “It doesn’t matter what sacrifice you have to make.”
This story has been updated.