Path to citizenship isn't easy, but is rewarding

Michelle Anstett

Ramona Elledge walked into the room with a backpack on her shoulder, fresh from class at Carl Sandburg College.

“That class is hard!” she said of her English 98 course. “English is my second language. I understand what people are saying, (but) it’s hard for me to write it down.”

Elledge, of Galesburg, immigrated to the United States from Jalisco, Mexico, about 12 years ago for “more opportunities.” After a brief stop in San Francisco, Calif., to visit family living there, she settled here to be near her parents.

“I spoke no English at all,” she said of her early days in the Midwest. “At first, it was so hard to go to the store or to the doctor or anything because you need somebody to take you.”

About a year after arriving in Galesburg, she met Grady Elledge, and the two have been married for about a decade.

“We first communicated with a dictionary,” she said, laughing. “We had trouble talking (but) he’s been teaching me, helping me. If we’re watching TV and I don’t understand something, I ask him and he explains it to me.”

Carhartt provided the immigrant with a job, and she was in charge of making pockets for all clothing produced in the Galesburg plant. She worked on four different sewing machines every day.

“It was very easy. I liked my job,” she said. “I was sad when I lost my job.”

But one devastating loss provided Elledge with another opportunity. She passed her General Educational Development test this spring and is taking advantage of the opportunity to study for a degree at CSC, something she hadn’t had time for while working. Today, she takes classes toward a degree in child development, which she wants to use to work with children.

“Because I don’t have any kids,” she explained, “I thought it would be a nice thing to do — work with kids.”

Last year, though, Elledge took perhaps the most important step since coming to America.

She began to study for her citizenship test, something she says took her only a few months. Preparing for the test can be difficult, she said, but all that studying eventually pays off.

“It was a little bit hard because it’s 100 questions and you have to memorize all of them because you don’t know which ones” will be asked, she said. But “when I went to take the test, it was very easy. They only asked about five or six questions.”

Elledge took her test in Chicago and her husband went with her.

“I was excited,” she said of passing her test. “It’s what I’d been waiting for for a long time.”

Becoming a citizen

In order to become a United States citizen, immigrants first must become legal permanent residents.

Those seeking a permanent residency card generally need to be directly related to a current citizen or will be employed by an American company.

Once a person has been a permanent resident for at least five years and is at least 18 years old, he or she can begin to take steps toward becoming a United States citizen.

Those married to U.S. citizens may apply after three years in the country, and there are other requirements for those in the armed forces.

The applicant must prove that he or she is of good moral character, and can be denied naturalization on this matter for one of several reasons, including drug convictions, prostitution and habitual drunkenness.

Those who have been convicted of murder or an aggravated felony are permanently barred from becoming naturalized citizens.

Applicants also must prove they are able to read, write, speak and understand English words in general usage. There are exemptions to this requirement, which include exceptions for those who have resided in the United States for more than 20 years and are more than 50 years old or for those who have mental impairments.

One of the final requirements is that applicants must prove they have a knowledge of American history and government.

This is proven by taking the citizenship test, which requires memorizing the answers to a large number of questions on topics ranging from the founding of the country to current leadership to governmental structure.

In 2000, the government began a redesign of the citizenship test, citing concerns over content of the test, how it was administered and how it was scored.

On Oct. 1, the naturalization test will become more involved. Those studying for the test will be asked to learn more material and think more critically, says the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which will make the material learned “more meaningful” to the applicants.

‘I want to go back’

When Abigail Burciaga of Galesburg moved to the United States in 1980, she noticed one thing right away.

“It was cold,” she said. “Snow looks so nice and I like it, but when I go outside, oh my God, it was cold.”

Burciaga, 47, met and married Julian Burciaga in September 1980. At the time, she was living in Zacatecas, Mexico. The couple moved to Galesburg in October of that same year, when she became a permanent resident.

“When I got here, I told him, ‘I want to go back,’ ” Burciaga said. “I had no family close over here. I kind of (felt) lonely.”

She knew no English and had brought with her little more than the clothes on her back. After arriving here, she had nightmares.

“One time, I was dreaming that it was like a yard sale,” she said, “all my clothes were hanging there and they were on fire, they were burning.”

Burciaga enrolled in English as a second language courses at CSC shortly after she arrived, but had to quit them when she became pregnant with their daughter, Maria.

“I couldn’t even go to the stores because my stomach hurt,” she said of her pregnancy.

After Maria was born, she returned to her ESL classes, but had to quit once again because she was offered a job at Carhartt. She worked at the factory in several capacities for 20 years, leaving when the plant closed, “until they kick(ed) us out of there.”

English was something she picked up much more easily while on the job, surrounded by people speaking English, but Burciaga decided to re-enroll in ESL courses at CSC in June 2007.

In February of that year, she decided it was time to become a citizen.

She took her husband and two friends to Peoria with her when she took the test, which she said wasn’t quite as hard as she thought it would be.

“The hard part for me was when you had to pronounce the name of our (governor, Rod Blagojevich),” she said, laughing. "On my way home from Peoria, I called my friend from work to let her know I got my citizenship. I feel so happy (and) excited.”

Independence Day holds a special significance for her, much like it does for other Americans.

“At first, because I got my resident card, I thought (citizenship) was not that important,” she said. “I cannot complain about being in (the) United States.

“I celebrate (the Fourth of July), too.”

But fireworks, she said, are not something she likes. “I don’t like them,” Burciaga said. “I’m afraid.”

For her daughter

When single mother Luz Moraila got her permanent residency card in 1998, she knew she was going to come to America to make a better life for her young daughter.

“I want a future,” the 31-year-old said. “I want her to take her citizenship (test) and I want her to go to college.

“It’s not for me, it’s for her. I want a better life for her.”

She moved from Sinaloa, Mexico, to Anaheim, Calif., for two years, where she worked in a clothing factory. Her daughter, Maritza, was born in Mexico but came to the United States when she was barely one year old.

In 2001, she moved from California to Galesburg.

Even after spending two years in California, Moraila did not know a lot of English. So, she began ESL classes at CSC.

“I can go run now and see the doctor,” she said, “before, I can’t do it. I continue to learn.”

Last year, she began to take steps toward becoming a citizen, mostly because she wanted to complete the process before Maritza, 11, a Lombard Middle School sixth-grader, turns 18.

She took her time studying all the questions because “I want to wait until I feel I’ve got it.”

Using flash cards and with the help of Anne Giffey, Knox College assistant librarian for public services, she learned about her new country. Though it took her a while before she felt she was ready, Moraila did not get discouraged.

“I think nothing is hard for me,” she said. “When you want to do (something), you will do it.

“I hear a lot of people say (they will not take the test) ‘because I don’t speak English).’ It’s hard, but you need to do it.”

She passed her test last June, and the Fourth of July has become one of her favorite holidays.

“I celebrate every year, I don’t care if I’m a citizen or not,” she said. “It’s like Mother’s Day or something. It’s very important for the American people.”

Many immigrants, she says, feel that becoming a United States citizen will force them to lose sight of where they were born.

“I’m Mexican all my life,” she said. “I’m Mexican if I’ve got my citizenship (or not). I don’t lose Mexico.”

Becoming a Citizen

Here are some examples of questions on the citizenship test. Could you pass?

1. What do the stripes on the flag stand for?

A. The 13 original colonies

2. Who elects the president?

A. The Electoral College

3. How many amendments are there to the Constitution?

A. 27

4. What are the duties of the Congress?

A. To make the laws

5. What is the basic belief of the Declaration of Independence?

A. That all men are created equal

6. Who has the power to declare war?

A. Congress

7. In what year was the Constitution written?

A. 1787

8. Who is the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court?

A. John G. Roberts

9. Who was the President during World War I?

A. Woodrow Wilson

10. What is the most important right granted to U.S. citizens?

A. The right to vote

Michelle Anstett can be reached at