PUSH FOR CITIZENSHIP INCREASES EXAM ANXIETY
By HEATHER APPEL, HERALD NEWS | 05/04/08 03:01 AM
Alma Gomez, left, a volunteer citizenship class teacher, shows Elizabeth Arias, 34, of Paterson, how to fill out U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services forms at a class sponsored by ACORN recently held in Paterson. (Aldo Martinez Jr./Special to the Herald News)
For Maria Salamanca, overcoming administrative hurdles and a lengthy wait turned out to be the easy part of her naturalization process.
The real anxiety came from taking the test.
After a major fee increase was announced last year, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency received more than 3 million applications and petitions for immigration benefits, an unprecedented volume for the agency. That led to fears that legions of prospective citizens would be trapped in a backlogged system.
In some areas of the nation, that's just what happened, but in New Jersey, things have moved fairly quickly for would-be citizens. That's good news, but it also means that hundreds of local residents are now at the nerve-wracking stage of interviews and exams, in hopes that they'll pass the test and be able to vote in November.
Salamanca, who moved to Paterson six years ago from Colombia, filed her citizenship application before July 30 of last year to beat a fee increase, from $400 to $675.
The increase, combined with people's desire to vote in this year's presidential election, caused a 350 percent spike in naturalization applications nationwide filed in June and July 2007, compared with the same period in 2006.
Processing times slowed significantly. Many didn't receive confirmation that their application was received until November or December. Across the region, immigrant advocates began to worry that the backlog could prevent people from naturalizing in time to vote in this November's elections. In January, the citizenship and immigration director testified before Congress that the average processing time for applications had increased to 18 months.
The outlook is brighter for New Jersey applicants. By hiring additional staff, budgeting for more overtime hours and extending hours for citizenship interviews to Saturdays, the Newark office has been able to process thousands of applications submitted last summer within eight or nine months. And New Jersey's citizenship office offers another advantage -- applicants who pass the test are sworn in the same day.
Many of those who were part of that application rush in June or July of last year were called for their interviews and citizenship tests starting in March. Salamanca spent the spring preparing for the exam -- with disappointing results.
"I'm still stressed. It was so much stress; they could have taken me out in an ambulance," Salamanca said Wednesday night at a meeting of the community organization ACORN on Market Street in Paterson, where free citizenship classes are offered.
Salamanca had gone to Newark for her interview and test the previous day. She says she knew all the answers to the practice questions, but when the interview began, she was paralyzed with fear.
"My mind went blank -- I didn't remember anything," she said.
She has a new test scheduled for Aug. 29, so she plans to keep studying and working on her English until then, which is not so easy for a 69-year-old woman, she said.
Applicants who don't pass the first time get a second chance to take the test. After that, they have to reapply and pay the new $675 fee.
For some, the incentive to hurry up and apply before the fee increase was the push they needed to start a process they had put off for quite a while.
The Paterson Community Technology Center, run by Passaic County Community College, saw great demand for citizenship classes. In April, about 15 students completed the six-week class led by Gaby Rinkerman, the center's director.
In the final class, Rinkerman guided students through a series of Internet links to help them prepare for the test. An automated voice quizzed them on the name of the vice president and how many stars are on the American flag. In another room, a few students conducted mock interviews, videotaped for the class to review.
Josela Mota, a 49-year-old home health aide from Haledon, said she felt well-prepared for her upcoming exam, but she was still nervous.
She was delighted that her application was processed in less than eight months.
"For me, the appointment came very quickly," she said, "One thing that might have helped is that my name is uncommon."
The citizenship agency conducts name checks, which can often drag out the process.
For Mota, the process had a happy ending. She took the test on April 29 and passed. She said, like many people, the fee increase drove her to apply, but there was a bigger motive.
"Citizens here have more rights, and the biggest is the right to vote. As Latinos, we want to have a voice in the destiny of our country," she said.
Reach Heather Appel at 973-569-7113 or firstname.lastname@example.org.