EASTHAM — The class was on lesson six, “Important Symbols in Our Lives,” at the start of the third session at the Eastham Public Library on May 16, and all four of immigration attorney Stephanie Souza’s students were finding it easy to describe the significance of the 13 stripes and 50 stars on the American flag.
On Tuesday evenings through June 6, Souza is guiding groups of potential citizens through eras and milestones in U.S. history in preparation for the naturalization test. Her students are doing well, she said, but the last class is designed to calm some nerves: it will include video of an actual naturalization interview.
Attendance in the class has ranged from four to seven participants. Some are just thinking about applying for citizenship. “Some people take a while to make that move,” she said.
The class moved on to the history of the Statue of Liberty. Lady Liberty was described as symbolic of “the friendship between France and America.”
“It should say North America,” pointed out Mauricio Zuleta, who is originally from Chile. Zuleta is one of several members of the class who hasn’t yet applied for citizenship but plans to.
Zuleta works at two Provincetown guest houses, the Captain’s House and the Chicago House, and has been a U.S. resident for eight years. He hopes to avoid the green card renewal process when his expires in two years. But beyond that bureaucratic impetus, Zuleta’s main thinking, he said, has been, “Why not? My home is here.”
The ineffable and various meanings of “home” came up in lesson seven, which covered U.S. geography. “What are the best things about the place where you live?” Souza asked.
“My job,” said Delmar Bliss, whose work in stonemasonry takes him all around the Cape. “I work everywhere,” Bliss said, and he likes it — especially the satisfaction he gets from finishing a project.
Born in Jamaica, Bliss has been living in the U.S. since 2007. He attends Souza’s class with his wife, Courtney Lawless Bliss, a massage therapist. She is already a citizen, Bliss said. “She’s just supporting me,” he said. “She thinks I need to learn about the culture of America.”
The Blisses share the Fourth of July as a birthday, the class was amused to learn during a lesson on national holidays. Their 11-year-old daughter, Hattie, perused the library during the two-hour class, poking her head in once to let her parents know she’d found books to check out. “She reads a lot,” Bliss said.
As the class moved swiftly through the curriculum, each lesson ended with a series of civics test questions included on the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) list of 100 potential citizenship questions. During a naturalization interview, an applicant will be asked 10 questions selected at random from that list — and must answer six of those correctly to pass that part of the test.
The questions require more than just rudimentary knowledge of U.S. civics: “How many amendments does the Constitution have?” is one. Answer: 27. Another asks, “If both the President and the Vice President can no longer serve, who becomes President?” Answer: the Speaker of the House.
As participants took turns reading aloud, the others murmured the words to themselves in hushed tones. For some of them, it was practice for the English language test that is also part of the naturalization interview. The candidate’s ability to proficiently answer the USCIS officer’s formal questions during the oral interview is also considered part of the English test. Souza does not anticipate either test being an obstacle for anyone in the class: applicants’ English needs to be conversational to pass and, in this class, she said, everyone speaks English well.
Souza works for the Community Action Committee of Cape Cod and the Islands, a Hyannis-based nonprofit that offers free legal assistance to immigrants. Her organization set out to collaborate with the Eastham library to offer the course because distance from naturalization resources can be a barrier for eligible citizens at this end of the Cape especially, she said.
Souza had never taught a citizenship class before this one. (Her only teaching experience had been with grade schoolers in California years ago, she said.) She acquired the lesson plans from two volunteer citizenship class teachers in Hyannis.
Sherman Wilson, originally from Jamaica, is a four-year Cape Cod resident who lives in Dennis and does housekeeping and maintenance in Provincetown. He found out about the Eastham class when he met with Souza at her office after deciding to pursue citizenship. He filed his application on March 31 and heard back from USCIS on May 5. He was surprised his application went through so fast — his naturalization interview will take place in June.
Souza said she also found the quick turnaround time surprising when she started practicing immigration law in 2021. “I’m finding that most of my clients are becoming citizens within three or four months” of applying, she said.
That’s one thing she wishes more people knew — that the naturalization process isn’t necessarily as drawn out as some expect, and that there’s free legal aid available for those eligible and interested.
Three weeks into the six-session citizenship course, Souza and the participants swept through lesson plans apace. As they reached the end of a unit and went over its corresponding civics test questions, Souza put the class through a multi-century review encompassing questions about the Declaration of Independence, the War of 1812, and principles of checks and balances. As she fired off questions, the class sprang to answer right away.
“They’re good!” Souza said.
On May 31 at 2 p.m., U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services will hold a nationwide virtual engagement session where it will discuss possible redesigns of the naturalization test. Registration is on the citizenship resource center area of the USCIS website.