OPINION

Opinion: A tale of two Anas, and a story of citizenship

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 20:  Immigrants take oath of citizenship to the United States on November 20, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. Sixty immigrants from 25 countries became American citizens during the naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) office at Newark's Federal Building.  (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

NEWARK, NJ - NOVEMBER 20: Immigrants take oath of citizenship to the United States on November 20, 2014 in Newark, New Jersey. Sixty immigrants from 25 countries became American citizens during the naturalization ceremony at the U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services (USCIS) office at Newark's Federal Building. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)  (2014 Getty Images)

“I thought this day would never come.”

Ana Abarca, a spunky 68-year-old Salvadoran woman, murmured these words as she gave me a prolonged, tight hug last summer, holding her citizenship certificate in one hand and a miniature American flag in the other. She is one of the hundreds of new U.S. citizens with whom I celebrated over the course of my career.

For more than 10 years, I have dedicated myself to supporting fellow immigrants as they navigate a country whose customs, system of government and naturalization process are new to them.

I was brought up in communist and post-communist Romania, a country pugnaciously tried by corruption pains, misunderstood Western exceptionalism and a struggling, incompetent political class. I tried to make sense of my dreams and ideals but I was routinely stripped of even my smallest victories.

- Ana Negoescu

Many of them did not know that the woman celebrating with them was not a citizen herself. But that’s about to change.

In February, I passed my citizenship test. In a few weeks, I will swear allegiance to a country in which I have a family and career that long have stroked chords of belonging and personal responsibility, duty and rights. I am excited to redefine my relationship to this country and become a U.S. citizen.

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At my citizenship ceremony I will stand together with hundreds of other immigrants, who, like me, took charge to determine their own destiny. Many have fled violence and persecution; others sought religious or other freedoms.

Like me, many sipped on the alphabet soup of immigration visas and statuses for years, and they have patiently delved into social and cultural norms, as they made this country their own.

Millions of immigrant stories are similar to Ana’s and mine, each different and worthy of being told, but some don’t end with citizenship just yet. Of nearly 9 million permanent residents in the United States eligible to naturalize, more than 60 percent have never received information on how to become a U.S citizen, according to recent groundbreaking research. Although many share our enthusiasm about becoming Americans, some simply don’t know where to begin.

To give them a jump start, the New Americans Campaign has piloted a program called Citizenship 1-2-3 in Miami. This innovative program aims to inform and support those who are ready to take the steps to naturalize by bringing together an online tool, on-the-ground legal service providers, a texting platform, and a telephone hotline. This multidimensional effort aims to achieve exponential reach across generations of immigrants who get their information from different sources and prefer different models of assistance.

Citizenship 1-2-3 is like bringing Ana to encourage each permanent resident who is contemplating US citizenship, to demystify the process, and assure them that their goal of becoming U.S. citizens is within reach!

“It’s easy! Don’t be afraid!” she said sternly, speaking to her former classmates at CARECEN, a community based organization and New Americans Campaign partner in Washington, DC. She urged them to continue studying and take full advantage of the citizenship resources in the community. Then, she smiled and proceeded to roast herself in front of the classroom: “nothing was going into this hard head of mine, and my stubborn tongue never listened to me when I was trying to pronounce Woodrow (Wilson) and oath of allegiance but I spent hours practicing, and now I can say it!”

Ana fled the civil war in El Salvador in 1988 and came to the United States to escape the bloodshed that has marred the tiny Central American country for the decades to follow. A small business owner, Ana left everything behind when she decided the future she wants for her children and grandchildren looked different.

A single mom, with only an elementary education, but driven by ambitious dreams, Ana reinvented herself in the United States. “Life has not been easy here, but my secret was strong will and perseverance,” Ana said as she recalled her first years in the U.S. “I went to learn English but gave up after a while to take another job.” She recently retired from working as a janitor at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., but she never gave up her goal of becoming a US citizen.

Like my fellow Ana’s story, mine is one of struggle. Mine is also a story of privilege.  Growing up, we always had food on the table. I have never experienced war or systemic violence, and I had access to quality education. My struggles seem minor — I grew up without indoor plumbing and spent my youth being told that you can’t do anything if you don’t know the right people. All my successes were attributed to some form of bribe or nepotism.  

I was brought up in communist and post-communist Romania, a country pugnaciously tried by corruption pains, misunderstood Western exceptionalism and a struggling, incompetent political class. I tried to make sense of my dreams and ideals but I was routinely stripped of even my smallest victories. But no one could strip me of my dignity. So I decided to leave and try my chance at fairly rewarded hard work, and recognition of my values and dreams, in the United States.

Now, 15 years later, I am proud that I am becoming a full-fledged citizen. And I am glad that more people are learning about the road to swearing their allegiance to this land of opportunity.

Ana Negoescu is Manager of Integration Programs at the National Immigration Forum.

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