An eye-witness account from a US Citizenship Tutor Volunteer
The colors of red and blue flashed from every screen in every home. I walked through my neighborhood in Seattle, gripping the ends of my leather jacket to seal off the bitter wind that trickled through my sleeves. It was Tuesday night–not just any Tuesday–but November 8, 2016. My phone begged for my attention, buzzing incessantly from the inside of my pocket. But I kept walking. With each step, I moved closer and closer towards a building that I had never been inside before but had walked by hundreds of times.
I stepped inside.
The lobby was glossy, illuminated with bright, fluorescent lights that beamed onto crayon-marked sheets of paper. Rows of classrooms stretched across the hallway, with an American flag peeking from behind one of the doors. This place reminded me of a school, but it was not a school. It was home to a non-profit organization that offered community services to immigrants and refugees. And as fate would have it, on that election night, there was an opportunity to sign up for a volunteer position as a citizenship preparation tutor.
It’s worth noting that my identity reflects the privileges of being a white US citizen. And while I had wanted to step inside this building and volunteer for years, I didn’t. I had let my life become distracted in a convoluted web of screens and self-serving goals. Email after email, ambition after ambition, doomscroll after doomscroll. It seemed as if the screens and tech tools had seized every bit of my attention–not with a magical swipe, but with tiny taps over time.
But my eyes couldn’t bear to look at screens anymore. All I could feel was perpetual anxiety, punctuated by the twitch of nerves that flowed from the veins of my ankles to the tired curl of my thumbs. As the screens flashed between the colors of red and blue, it all felt familiar, as the United States had been ripping into polarity throughout my entire life.
And it felt as if I stood at the center of it.
Friends and colleagues were eager to vote for the ‘most qualified president,’ while simultaneously, friends and family were eager to vote for the ‘most non-politician president.’ And as both sides became more and more fervent to battle the other, my nervous system became more and more frayed each day.
But in the midst of the foul debates about who to vote for, an urgent question cycled through my mind. What about the people who can’t vote? What did immigrants and refugees think of this divide? What obstacles were they going through? And as a citizen, would it ever be possible to find a way to connect to their experience? Of course, I would never be able to comprehensively connect to their experience, but I suspected that one way to feel some part of it was to navigate the path to citizenship with them. So I signed my name on the dotted line, set to begin volunteering as a citizenship tutor the following week.
But by the time I stepped outside the building and began to walk back home, everything changed. The flashes from the screens paused on a sharp, stinging red color. My phone battery was dead, too defeated to carry on. And my feet were heavy with dread, too afraid to return home and face this new reality.
“You’re awake, by the way. You’re not having a terrible, terrible dream,” announced Rachel Maddow from the TV screen, her shoulders slumping into the MSNBC news table. “Also, you’re not dead and you haven’t gone to hell. This is your life now. This is our election now. This is us. This is our country. It’s real.”
Looking back, it’s haunting to think about how ‘real’ we all thought 2016 was. But this reality was not shared. As Rachel Maddow announced these words, another world was unfolding, broadcasted on a different channel.
“This is not entirely about Donald Trump. This is a reaction against the people in charge,” announced Tucker Carlson, at the Fox News table. “If you’re not in the elite media, if you’re not on wall street, if you’re not in the political class, look at the people who run this country, they sneer at you. They have contempt for you. There’s nothing about you that they like.”
Whether the channels were prescribing medicine or poison, the common truth we all shared was that reality was now being defined by the screens around us. And I was sick of it. I longed to give the tired curl of my thumb a deep rest. I longed to fixate my strained, dry eyes on a scene that wasn’t crafted by piercing, artificial blue light. And I longed to connect and support real people in my real neighborhood.
Over the last four years, every Tuesday night, I turned off my phone and walked that same walk, stepping inside the classroom to meet with the student body of immigrants and refugees. I sat down in the squeaky chair at the scratched wooden table, conversing with each student–one-by-one, often two-by-two, sometimes seven at a time. While I only had to walk to get to the building, they had to travel far, leaving everything behind for an uncertain and risky future.
But as we sat alongside the scratched wooden table, a palpable force of unity rippled from the walls to the floor, underscored by the diverse representation of identities across nationality, race, gender, ability, and age–all in one room. No matter where we came from, or what language we spoke, we found a way to bond–lamenting about the weather, playing games on the whiteboard, or laughing at silly jokes that the kids made up. We sought anything we could to uplift our spirits as we navigated through one of the most unpredictable and unjust administrations of our time.
Even in ‘normal’ times–if there ever was one–the path to US citizenship has always been riddled with obstacles and injustices. To pass the citizenship test, immigrants must know how to read, write, and speak fluently in English, respond to a series of confusingly-worded and personally invasive questions, and flawlessly memorize one-hundred facts about US history.
Questions like, “Why did your last marriage end?”
“Have you ever not filed your taxes? Do you always file your taxes?” (Meanwhile, Trump avoided paying his taxes for 10 of the 15 years preceding his election.)
And US history facts like, “What are the five freedoms guaranteed in the First Amendment?” (A question that Supreme Court Justice nominee Amy Coney Barrett failed to answer before the Senate Judiciary Committee.)
Yet Tuesday after Tuesday, the classroom filled with students, despite the obstacles of the process and the obstacles of life. Many students had large families to nurture, multiple jobs to work, and a history of trauma to carry. When it was too daunting to memorize one-hundred questions, we focused on ten at a time. When it was too difficult to write in English, we wrote words in their native language first. When it was too exhausting to practice the interview, we talked about food instead. And when the requirements frequently and abruptly changed–like when the writing test shifted from a piece of paper to a digital tablet–we sketched our names on the screens to get familiar with the uncertainty of technology.
But these obstacles were only the beginning.
On the next Tuesday, I learned that the names on their permanent resident cards, also known as green cards, were incorrect. “I’m afraid that I will fail the test because my name is wrong on my green card,” said one student from Mexico. “What should I say to the officer?”
His last name–modified to protect his privacy–was González-Lopez, but on his green card, it was misrepresented as ‘Lopez-González.’ And he wasn’t the only student with a misrepresented green card. A student from Ethiopia, named Halima, (modified) had a green card with a misrepresented name of ‘Helma.’ This error not only affected the validity of their green cards but caused friction in the process of gaining employment or completing other legal documents. Before they could even take the citizenship test, they would have to find the courage to inform the officer–in a language that was not their first–that their green card was incorrect.
To overcome this obstacle, I sought anything I could to help them bring clear evidence to the table. “Do you have other forms of identification, like a birth certificate, that represents your correct name?” I asked. “Show the incorrect name next to the correct name, side-by-side.” I had hoped that this would illuminate the truth to the officer. Fortunately, it worked, and their green cards were eventually corrected.
But before landing a date to take the test, their applications had to be processed, with waiting times that were increasing from months to years. According to a report by Boundless Immigration–a data and technology company that helps immigrants obtain green cards and citizenship–a two-year surge in applications occurred between 2016 and 2017, with the volume returning to a typical level in 2018. But the processing backlog remains at its lowest level in a decade. In the past, when surges happened, resources were granted to keep pace, but that didn’t happen this time. Between 2017 and 2019, the average waiting time doubled.
“When will I get my interview date?” asked one student. “Has my application been processed yet?” asked another. “How much longer will it be?”
I didn’t have an answer. Where was the answer? Why weren’t there more resources to alleviate this backlog?
And then, more resources became constrained.
On the next Tuesday, we were informed that the non-profit organization that facilitated this class lost a large portion of its federal grant, forcing them to reduce the class schedule to one class per week, instead of two. This diminished the time that they could spend preparing for the test. To work through this obstacle, we searched for US history facts on YouTube, tediously bookmarking reputable sources on their phones so they could practice outside of the classroom.
“It’s getting easier now,” said one student from Vietnam. “I listen to the video on my way to work.”
Unexpectedly, this moment felt redeeming for me, too–a reminder that screens can still be a helpful solution–but only when tamed appropriately, sourced from truth, and designed with compassion.
But soon, the obstacles became too overwhelming to comprehend, let alone overcome.
“Why do you want to become a US citizen?” I asked, helping them practice a mandatory interview question.
“Because I love this country. Because I want to vote.”
Every Tuesday, immigrants committed loyalty to the US, while simultaneously, the current administration committed crimes against them.
Beginning in 2017, a series of executive orders banned the issuance of immigrant and non-immigrant visas for citizens from thirteen countries. Most of the countries affected by these bans are Muslim-majority nations, impacting more than 135 million people. A system of ‘waivers’ went into effect for citizens enduring unforeseen circumstances, but through April 2018, out of 33,176 applicants, only 579 waivers were granted–a makeup of 2 percent.
“Teacher, what is going on?” asked one student from Somalia, a country currently on the ban list. “Will my daughter be able to move to the US to live closer to me?”
I had to tell her no.
It was the longest walk home in my life.
And the hopelessness continued to grow, as more family separations occurred across the country, particularly along the borders. While the detainment and separation of migrant families along the borders have been occurring for decades, the “zero-tolerance policy” accelerated it. It began in April 2018, and by June of that year, the Department of Homeland Security publicly acknowledged that 1,995 children were separated from their parents or guardians. An executive order was signed to reverse this, replacing it with a new policy to detain families together–but the separation continued in more covert ways. By January 2020, US officials reported to a San Diego federal judge that 4,368 children were separated from their parents or guardians.
As obstacles turned into violations, volunteering turned into a fight. Tuesday was now a battle to protect their families and their rights as a human being.
But we still sat alongside the scratched wooden table together.
But we still played games on the whiteboard.
But we still laughed at jokes that the kids made up.
On February 28, 2020, a new obstacle emerged. The CDC confirmed the second non-travel-related COVID-19 case in the US.
And it was in Seattle.
By the following Tuesday, the classroom vanished. The squeaky chair and the scratched wooden table were gone, replaced by the very thing that we all wanted to escape.
But every week, we signed in to the virtual classroom. And while the interview practice questions remained the same, the answers started to change.
“Are you currently employed?”
“No, I am not working anymore,” said one student from Ethiopia. “But I used to work at the daycare.”
There were, and continue to be, millions of stories like this.
The Migration Policy Institute estimates that immigrants outsize the share of essential workers and those in industries most economically impacted by the pandemic. Six million immigrants are currently working in occupations on the frontline, including health care, food production, and transportation. And as they continue to work on the frontlines, many of them do not have access to healthcare. This is caused by a lack of coverage from their employers and ineligibility for public coverage due to their immigration status. Even before the pandemic, in 2018, 7.7 million immigrants did not have access to health insurance, making up 27 percent of the total US uninsured population.
An additional six million immigrants work in industries that are economically devastated, such as food and household services. This not only affects the individual but the families and communities in their home countries who rely on these sources of income. The World Bank estimates that global remittances to low-and-middle-income countries will fall 20 percent this year–a decrease of over $100 billion. It’s yet another crushing example that the injustices that occur in the US not only affect the US but many countries around the world.
Obstacle after obstacle. Violation after violation. Loss after loss.
Where did the United States go?
I continue to search for some kind of meaning, some kind of reason, some kind of truth. But the truth is, we are off the map.
And while unity and justice are the compasses, things are not going to change until we change our everyday choices. Choices that shift our attention back to our neighborhoods. Choices that enable the contribution of our skills beyond our careers. And ballots that choose policies and people that help make life more accessible, free, and safe for everyone living in the United States.
Every Tuesday, class continues.
Even when the internet connection is weak. Even when the buttons on the interface are hard to understand. Even when it’s hard to focus, distracted by another obstacle. But when the screen gets boring, we laugh. When the buttons get confusing to use, we push them together to explore what they do. And when our attention gets distracted, we pause for a moment.
Since 2016, from this class, 42 immigrants and refugees have become US citizens, across 13 countries. Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Iran, Iraq, Israel, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Somalia, and Vietnam.
While they will each get a chance to vote in this year’s presidential election, even as citizens, minority populations are disproportionately affected by voter suppression tactics. If you experience or witness voter intimidation, call the Election Protection Hotline at 1–866-OUR-VOTE and know your voting rights.
And no matter what happens after Tuesday, November 3, I’ll continue to meet with new students in the virtual classroom.
“Hi, welcome,” I’ll probably say into the screen. “I can see you. And I can hear you.”