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Borders & Heritage

On the Road to Citizenship

February 22, 2016

Between August 1, 2014, and July 31, 2015, the Seattle office of the United States Citizen and Immigration Services (USCIS) approved 10,949 citizenship applicants. For many immigrants, achieving American citizenship is the culmination of a long journey from their countries of origin, and symbolic of a new beginning where they will be able to fully utilize the rights, responsibilities and opportunities afforded to all Americans.  

We follow Chakriya Say, a single mother of three originally from Cambodia, and Miguel Ceballos Medina, originally from Mexico and now raising a young daughter with his American wife Kate, towards the end of their citizenship application process as they prepare for their naturalization interviews. Before the interviews, both candidates had to meet the eligibility requirements which include being at least 18 years old, having a lawful, permanent residence for at least five years (or 3 years for those who are spouses of U.S. citizens) and being of “good moral character.” 

Related Content: District Director Anne Corsano

The condition of “good moral character” is formally defined as “a personal history of honesty, fairness, and respect for the rights of others and for state and federal law.”  USCIS District Director Anne Corsano elaborates upon the good moral character definition, and encourages people to apply for citizenship:  

Once the eligibility requirements are met, to initiate the citizenship application process an applicant fills out the N400.  Upama KC, a citizenship case manager at Asian Counseling and Referral Services (ACRS), notes that some people may be deterred from applying for citizenship if they feel that their English reading, speaking and writing abilities are not strong enough to fill out the application or pass the interview, or they are undergoing financial hardships and cannot afford the $680 application fee. It is ACRS’ goal to help people seeking citizenship overcome these barriers by offering free citizenship classes in several public libraries throughout the city and one-on-one sessions tailored to the needs of specific individuals. Case managers like Upama can also asses whether individuals qualify for financial assistance or fee waivers. Individuals over the age of 50 who have held lawful permanent residency in the U.S. for over 20 years may also qualify to have an interpreter at their naturalization interview and be exempt from the English language requirements of the exam.

Once an applicant submits their N400 application, the local USCIS office schedules them for their naturalization interview, generally three to six months after the application is submitted. The interview consists of four main parts:

  • A review of the information on the client’s N400 application, where the immigration officer is both verifying information submitted on the application and gauging the applicant’s ability to speak English.
  • A civic exam where an applicant must answer six out of 10 civic questions, from a list of 100 possible questions, given to the candidate in advance.
  • A reading portion where a candidate must read a sentence in English.
  • A writing portion where a candidate must write a sentence in English.

Among the main benefits of U.S. citizenship include the right to vote, being able to apply for a U.S. passport and the ability to sponsor other relatives who want to immigrate to the United States. The latter in particular is significant for those who have had to leave their families behind with the intent of being able to later re-unify with their loved ones once they have established a new life in the U.S. Along with the rights received are responsibilities, including swearing allegiance to the U.S. and becoming eligible to serve in the U.S. armed forces. Upama KC of ACRS notes that for many, the symbolic significance to obtaining U.S. citizenship is equally important.

“The end result, the certificate, might just look like a piece of paper,” she says. “But for someone who has left their home, left their family members behind and overcome obstacles and struggles to build a new life in this country, it means a lot to them to become a citizen.”

For complete details and more information on how to apply for citizenship click here


Aileen Imperial

Aileen Imperial is a multimedia and documentary producer with a commitment to thoughtful observation and engagement. Her work has aired nationally on the PBS American Masters series, PBS NewsHour, and she is a 4-time Emmy winner for feature videos in the Arts, Culture, and Human Interest. Find her on Twitter: @imperealize

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