Will the Studying Pay Off? Taking the Citizenship Test

Oct 15, 2014

Thursday, September 25th was a big day, a day that Ofelia Correa had been looking forward to for years.

On that morning, she and her husband drove to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Fairfax for her citizenship test and interview.  Her husband and kids were already American citizens, and now, Correa was trying to join them.  WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports.

OFELIA CORREA: I am a little nervous because when somebody asks questions, sometimes I don’t understand some words.

ANDREW JENNER:  Speaking two days before the test, Correa switched to Spanish to describe her ambitions.

CORREA: [Speaking Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: We always have goals, things that we want to achieve, and maybe with being citizens we can have better opportunities. That’s what I think I would want to have: better opportunities, and benefits for my family.

Nervousness on the big day is entirely normal, says Kim Zanotti, director of the Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Washington Field Office.

KIM ZANOTTI: My officers are constantly being advised and instructed that they need to make sure that they are putting the applicants at ease, because so many of them can be a little bit fearful of that test portion.

After coming to the United States from Mexico more than 20 years ago, Correa spent two years in the U.S. without legal documents. But her husband was a legal permanent resident, and he applied on her behalf for legal status. Before that became official, though, a frightening letter arrived, threatening her with deportation. An attorney helped her sort it out, and she received a green card without having to leave the country. For years afterwards, though, she was haunted by fears that it might happen again.

CORREA: [Speaking in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: It’s difficult to live with something like that because you’re always afraid you’re going to be deported.

On that day in Fairfax in late September, Correa had her chance to put that behind her for good. An officer summoned her from the waiting room. She followed, raised her right hand, swore to tell the whole truth, and then it began.

KIM ZANOTTI: There are two primary responsibilities for the officer in that setting. One is to certify that the information that the applicant put in the N-400 application is accurate. The other responsibility is to also test them.

That N-400 application can be intimidating. It asks for all sorts of personal information and includes more than 30 questions to ensure naturalized citizens are of “good moral character,” as required by law. Have you ever belonged to the Communist Party? Been a vigilante? Not paid your taxes? Are you a habitual drunkard? Have you ever tried to hurt somebody on purpose? Not every past misstep bars someone from citizenship, but getting caught lying about something probably will.

ZANOTTI: The officer is also judging the applicant’s ability to understand English. For the reading portion of it, they will give the applicant three sentences and ask the applicant to read at least one of those sentences in entirety. If it’s the writing portion, the officer will give them a blank sheet of paper and dictate a specific sentence like “The Statue of Liberty is in New York.”

Like most applicants, Correa demonstrated sufficient command of English, correctly answered some civics and history questions and passed the N-400 screening. The officer told her the result right there.

CORREA: She said, “You passed.” I’m very happy. [Begins speaking Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: It’s a big deal for me to be able to have passed the test for citizenship. I think I have more opportunities to be able to help my family and to move forward with my goals.

Correa’s naturalization ceremony, which will happen within a few months, will make it official. After that, she’ll enjoy all the rights and responsibilities that many natural-born American citizens take for granted, including the ability to vote, carry a U.S. passport and serve on a jury. It’s been a long time coming, and on the drive home that day, she felt the weight off her shoulders.

CORREA: I say [to] my husband, I’m going to celebrate!

This is Part Four of a six-part weekly series on the path to citizenship for immigrants in Virginia.