PCC Courier – Back to school to become U.S. citizens

March 6, 2017.

As President Trump begins enforcing travel bans that convey unsavory attitudes towards immigrants, PCC continues to offer help to those who need it most.

Twenty-six students coming from different parts of the world gathered Saturday morning in a classroom at the PCC Community Education Center to study for their citizenship test, the culmination of the naturalization process that will allow them to become United States citizens.

“They are here to boost their confidence,” Sotelo said. “What they are worried about is their foreign accent, but I keep telling that’s not a problem, not unless it interferes with the meaning of what they are saying.”

The class is part of a group of noncredit courses devoted to the immigrant population. They are offered at no cost and include classes in English for the written driver’s test, building construction, and one that prepares students for the General Education Development exam (GED)—a way to earn a certificate equivalent to a high school diploma.

“The importance of citizenship is taking on a sort of a different feeling now with the things we are hearing out of Washington D.C.,” vice-president of the noncredit division at PCC Robert Bell said. “We could find us shifting towards more citizenship classes so that the students can get the skills they need to sort that path.”

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Erick Lemus/Courier. Immigrant students of different backgrounds after attending an Immigrant Education class at the PCC Community Education Center in Pasadena on Saturday, March 4, 2017.

The students in Sergio Sotelo’s class at the PCC Foothill campus are preparing for the oral civics test, which consists of a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service Officer asking up to 10 out of 100 questions. In order to pass it they have to answer at least six of them correctly.

Students in this class usually already hold the green card and are permanent residents.

“They are here to boost their confidence,” Sotelo said. “What they are worried about is their foreign accent, but I keep telling that’s not a problem, not unless it interferes with the meaning of what they are saying.”

Robahe Allami and Hadizadeh Hossein, respectively 67 and 72 years old, are an Iranian married couple. In 2013 they applied for the U.S. government program called the Diversity Immigrant Visa Program that awards 50,000 green cards to people from all over the world through a lottery system. It’s pure luck, and they won.

“We love it here,” Allami said. “The freedom, the weather.”

They have four children, two still live in Iran, and they’re in class to improve their English and to see what the test will be like. They sit and take notes, and Allami has already cooked and brought to class Persian food for everybody to taste.

The task of the teacher is not only to give students specific instructions for the test but also to create a community of learners. Those who complete the course and become citizens come back in the class to tell other students what it was like. The idea is to have a strong support from one’s own community.

“It makes it easier for them to stay in the course, instead of just coming in isolated as an individual,” Bell said. “If you fail the first time it might be easier to step away from it but the cohort keeps them going together.”

Questions in the oral test range from “How many amendments does the Constitution have?” to “Who’s the chief justice of the United States now?” and “Who did the United States fight in World War II?”

To see if any U.S. citizen would pass it, we tested three students from the Courier’s own newsroom. They were surprised to see they wouldn’t pass it.

For the permanent residents it’s only a matter of time before they can take the citizenship test, and the class is there to keep them focused on it. For the others, classes improve their skills offering practical options in an uncertain journey.

The PCC noncredit division at the Foothill campus started holding classes for immigrants in Spring 2015 when the district realized there was a significant population of immigrants living in the area who received very little education opportunities.

Some of the classes are held on campus, but in some cases faculty go where immigrants gather to find work, like at the Pasadena Job Center or the East Side Cafe. Laborers go there every morning. If they are recruited they go to work, if not they stay at the center where noncredit classes are offered.

“We take these services to them,” Bell said.

The goal is to move individuals from their initial job where they’re making the minimum wage, to a living wage that can support their family.

For the permanent residents it’s only a matter of time before they can take the citizenship test, and the class is there to keep them focused on it. For the others, classes improve their skills offering practical options in an uncertain journey.

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