Becoming a U.S. citizen: Not as easy as filling out a form
By Cody Thompson
Before Quan Tran moved from Vietnam to the United States with her parents in 2001, she remembers her mom dying her hair a lighter color. The little girl would look more American that way.
Her mother figured it would help. Immigration is a complicated process.
Because her father was half-American, they were able to find their way to the land of the free. A church paid for their plane ticket and picked up daily expenditures. Other than that, they were alone.
“When we came to the U.S., we had nothing,” said Tran, now 22.
Tran, her sister, her mother and her father shared a two-bedroom apartment with another family.
Most of the help they received came from the Vietnamese community in Fort Wayne, Indiana, their new U.S. home. The government provided some resources, too, Tran said, but often they weren’t enough.
“There were programs that wanted to help,” she said. “But it was very short-term help.”
"Would you like to legally change your name?”
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, in its Apply for Citizenship section, greets visitors with "10 Steps to Naturalization: Understanding the Process of Becoming a U.S. Citizen."
Just what are the steps?
First, a prospective applicant has to determine if they are eligible to become a U.S. citizen. If eligible, the person tackles step three: "Prepare your Form N-400, Application for Naturalization."
The form has 18 pages of instructions and 20 pages of fill-in-the-blank questions that range from “Would you like to legally change your name?” to "Were you EVER involved in any way with genocide?"
The form costs $725 to file -- $640 plus an additional $85 for a "biometric fee."
“We understand the challenges they face,” said Tim Counts, a spokesman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), about the difficulty immigrants go through to become a U.S. citizen.
But he said the agency is charged with determining if a person is eligible to receive the benefits that accrue to U.S. citizens. And, he said, immigration law is complicated.
“It’s not as simple as filling out a form."
The form is in English, even for those using the Spanish-language version of the website. Question 12 asks whether the applicant has a physical or developmental disability or mental impairment that prevents them from understanding the English language or civics requirements for naturalization.
One of the legal qualifications is to speak English, Counts said, noting that there are a couple of exceptions. But USCIS does offer brochures and other material in other languages.
After completing these forms, an applicant has completed four out of 10 steps. The 10th: "Understanding U.S. Citizenship."
But there is more to becoming an American citizen than these 10 steps. “It’s not as simple as filling out a form,” immigration attorney Christen Christian said.
Christian is a staff attorney at the Immigrants & Language Rights Center, part of the not-for-profit Indiana Legal Services (ILS) that offers legal representation, consultation and advice to immigrants. The Center’s staff are all bilingual in English and Spanish, she said.
The biggest challenge for immigrants is navigating the immigration system, Christian said.
“It appears to be simple and straightforward on its face, but only one in 10 cases is actually simple and straightforward,” she said.
“The best ones to help are the ones who have gone through it before."
Indianapolis has an immigrant welcome center that helps people assimilate and maintain their individuality, she said.
The naturalization form suggests ways of assimilating, such as asking whether the applicant would like to change their name.
But a major challenge for immigrants is understanding what rights they enjoy in the United States, something the Center helps with. For refugees, who may enter the country without certain documents, it can be more difficult. And if their rights are threatened, they might be too afraid to raise an objection, Christian said.
“Typically, when people come to the U.S. because they fear persecution from their country, they’re not the ones to speak up,” she said.
Indiana offers resources to assist immigrants and refugees, including ILS; Exodus, an organization that helps refugees settle in Indiana; Catholic Charities Refugee and Immigrant Services; and Hispanic Connection of Southern Indiana, among others.
Counts said USCIS, which under federal law can offer only certain types of assistance, awards nearly $10 million in grants every year to organizations that help with naturalization. He acknowledged the contributions of immigrant communities, such as the Vietnamese in Fort Wayne.
“Often the best ones to help are the ones who have gone through it before,” he said.
"I always wanted to be a little white boy."
Tran and her sister attended English-as-a-second-language classes in school, another resource for immigrants. Despite attending these specialized classes, Tran said she was embarrassed and may have been bullied while at school.
“I hated school,” she said. “I never knew why, and I think I understand it now, but I always wanted to be a little white boy because they were always the teachers’ favorites.”
She didn’t like the American food served in the lunch rooms, and she was mocked when her mother packed Vietnamese food for her. She decided to stop eating lunch altogether.
But she excelled in school because the material was repetitive, she said. The teachers would often be upset because she performed well without being able to speak much English.
There wasn’t any way for her to hide the fact that she was an immigrant. People would quickly detect her accent. It wasn’t a sexy European accent, she said.
Because other children would make fun of her vocabulary, she often chose not to speak. Eventually, she realized she needed to speak to improve her English. So, although other children snickered when she read aloud in class, she began to raise her hand whenever she had the chance.
“I just did it until I wasn’t scared anymore,” she said.
Cody Thompson is in his second year of undergraduate studies at Indiana University, concentrating in Journalism, International Relations and French. Campus Editor at the Indiana Daily Student, his favorite writers include Wright Thompson, Eli Saslow, Ernie Pyle and Jack London. He enjoys reporting on complex cultural interactions and controversies, and aspires to become a foreign correspondent. In his spare time, he mostly reads.