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In Colorado Farm Country, Immigrants Take Steps Toward Citizenship

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Luke Runyon
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KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Student Gabriela Cardenas (left) asks a question of citizenship class instructor Marissa Velazquez at the Brush, Colorado public library.

Citizenship applications were on the rise across the country in 2016. And while there’s no definitive data for the first part of 2017, there are small indications that same trend could be continuing this year.

Many immigrants in the U.S. are worried that changes to immigration policy pushed by the Trump administration could impact their families -- and that’s true in rural America, too. In some rural communities, immigrants and refugees are taking steps to go from green card holders to fully-fledged citizens.

At the public library in the Morgan County town of Brush, Colorado, Marissa Velazquez welcomes her students to class. It’s a sunny Saturday morning, and today marks the halfway point in Velazquez’s course. It’s a ten-week crash course on American history, civics and English. The class is sponsored by a local nonprofit, One Morgan County.

Everyone in this class has the same goal: Become an American citizen. In two hours, Velazquez runs through voting rights, the legislative process and grammar -- even when we celebrate Flag Day (it’s in June).

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Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
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KUNC and Harvest Public Media
Instructor Marissa Velazquez teaches would-be naturalized citizens about American civics and history.

If you ask her, she’s surprised she’s even here.

“I never thought I would teach the class, because I took this class, as a student,” Velazquez says.

Originally brought by her parents from Mexico to Morgan County as a child, she became a naturalized citizen in 2016. To become naturalized, applicants are tested with a series of questions about the U.S., a dictation exam and an interview, oftentimes in English.

Thus the class.

“That’s why we get to practice listening skills, writing skills, reading so that they’re ready for when they go in for their interview to become a citizen,” she says.

While these test prep classes are pretty standard in some parts of the country -- normally offered by nonprofit groups and immigration law firms -- what makes this one unique is its size. In 2015, 10 people finished it. In 2016, just five. This year, Velazquez has a class of 21 students. In a rural area like Morgan County, that’s huge.

“We have students from Mexico, from Guatemala, El Salvador, and from Ethiopia,” Velazquez says. “So some are refugees, and some, like me, were brought here by their family.”

Morgan County has anchored its local economy to agriculture. A meatpacking plant, cheese factory, sugar beet processing plant and large dairy farms provide plentiful yet grueling jobs that require little proficiency in English, just hard manual labor. That’s made the rural county a magnet for migrating immigrants and refugees. It now holds sizeable Somali, Mexican, Ethiopian, El Salvadoran, Guatemalan and Honduran populations.  

Since the 2016 presidential election, a renewed focus on immigration and international travel has left more immigrants feeling uncertain -- even those with legal, permanent status.

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Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
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KUNC and Harvest Public Media
A student practices with flash cards with facts about American government during a class at the public library in Brush, Colorado.

That keeps Lisa Pray, the only immigration attorney in Morgan County, busy.

Pray says she’s noticed more of her clients asking about the citizenship process. And it’s not the usual people. Pray says she’s hearing from longer-term residents -- people who’ve been in town for more than a decade.

“There’s a lot of fear in the community,” Pray says. “Usually people who’d been here a long time, they decided to get their citizenship when they had some relative they wanted to bring over.

“Now, what I’m hearing from people is, ‘I just want to make sure I get to stay.’”

When President Donald Trump began signing executive orders expanding the immigrants eligible for deportation and restricting international travel from some Muslim-majority countries, Pray says Morgan County’s sizeable immigrant population was shaken. But the fear has also acted as a motivator.

“It has spurred a lot of people who are permanent [residents] to apply, or decide to get their citizenship,” Pray says.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics holds official records for the number of people who become naturalized citizens each year. It’s too early to put a definitive number on whether this surge of interest turns into an increase in the number of citizens.

Immigrants choose to go through the naturalization process for a few reasons: Being able to vote, being able to freely travel and being able to rest easy about immigration status.

“This is one of the big benefits associated with becoming a U.S. citizen: you can’t be deported,” says Mark Hugo-Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center.  

The number of people seeking citizenship tends to ebb and flow over the years. The numbers tend to peak when the application fee is set to rise or during an election year. 2013 followed that trend; roughly a million people applied to be naturalized citizens, the highest number in nearly a decade.

But Hugo-Lopez says there are still millions of eligible immigrants not seeking citizenship.

“Many of them when you ask them will say they want to become one, but they will also cite reasons like the cost and language being potential barriers, but they will also say, for example, they’re busy, they’re working, they don’t have the time, they haven’t even thought about it,” he says.

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Credit Luke Runyon / KUNC and Harvest Public Media
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KUNC and Harvest Public Media
The citizenship test preparation class in Brush, Colorado has 21 students this year. In 2016, five people completed the class.

Back in Brush, class is just about the wrap up. This week’s homework is to study up on amendments to the constitution -- all 27 of them. Student Kibrom Baraki, a refugee from Eritrea, works at the nearby meatpacking plant, hanging cow heads for hours each work day.

“I didn’t have freedom [in Eritrea], and everything is bad. That’s why I escaped from my country. After that the American government is helping me come here,” Baraki says.

In a few months he’ll be eligible to take the test, having been in the U.S. for nearly five years.

“That’s why I take a class. I take my citizenship [test]. I get a great job, and a good life,” he says.

That’s the opportunity America has given him, Baraki says. And if he doesn’t pass the test the first time, he’ll just take it again. 

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