In November, just a week after the U.S. presidential election in which immigration issues played a prominent role, over 200 Miami-area residents gathered together to celebrate their new status as U.S. citizens.
Each student took the stage to shake the hand of their teacher, Paul-Andre Mondesir, AFSC’s Haitian community social advocate, who guided them through the complex path to becoming a citizen in the twice-weekly class he teaches in a tiny strip mall storefront.
On any given evening, 30 or so men and women cram into the small room to prepare themselves to take the test that will allow them to become naturalized U.S. citizens.
These classes are a recent addition to the services that the American Friends Immigrant Services (AFIS) has provided to immigrants in Miami-Dade County for nearly 30 years.
Immigrants enrich south Florida with their diverse cultures, and as a result, the region has become a vibrant center for both industry and tourism. Between 2000 and 2010, Miami-Dade ranked in the top five counties in the country in terms of the total number of immigrants, with nearly 4 million immigrants living in Florida.
Since its inception, AFIS has been instrumental in organizing communities in South Florida to oppose anti-immigrant city or county ordinances.
For immigrants living in poverty, obtaining services can be a daunting proposition, and as a result many immigrants go without. This group is generally silent when it comes to policy reform because they are consumed by daily struggles. Recognizing this reality, AFIS attends to some of the South Florida immigrant community’s most pressing needs and in the process they are developing a broad constituent base that can then react as policy opportunities arise.
Paul-Andre’s classes for the Haitian community have attracted people of all ages and genders, with varying English communication skills.
The group discusses everything from posture and behavior—“Don’t forget to look the interviewer directly in the eye!”—to the most common questions on the test, “Who was the first U.S. president?” but also harder questions such as “Who is the current speaker of the House?”—all in Creole. They also walk through the interview process, step by step, in English.
Many participants are exhausted; they have already put in a hard day of work before class. Some are frustrated by the difficulty of the material as well as the language barrier.
But for many students, the class is the first time anyone has given them guidance on the citizenship process. Several participants had previously taken and failed the citizenship exam. Others had a deep fear of the process and what failure might mean.
By November, over 700 people had successfully attained U.S. citizenship.
The celebration in November was proof of the power of AFSC’s call for making quality services available to all people, regardless of their class or social status. It showed a group of people working together for something that will improve their opportunities in the future, and their children’s opportunities.
Still, many immigrants with whom AFSC works in Miami and across the country do not have the option of taking the citizenship test because of their immigration status. Making a pathway to citizenship for everyone remains a critical part of Paul-Andre’s advocacy work and that of AFSC staff nationwide.