Twelve months ago the Sierra Vista United Methodist Church cancelled its annual citizenship class because there was not enough interest.
This year, the organization is turning people away and planning to add another workshop in June.
“Last year we couldn’t even get up a class because people didn’t think they needed it,” said Peggy Lingo, coordinator for the church’s citizenship and English as a Second Language classes. “But now I think they are realizing they have to do it, and that they have to have an understanding of English.”
As controversy and uncertainty continues to surround new immigration policies implemented by the Trump administration, non-U.S. citizens are scrambling to cement their residency status.
“At least two of our students have visas that expire in the next six months,” Dixie Lee Larson, who also teaches the classes, said. “I think the current news has spurred people to join the class. We have some very motivated students.”
The church, located on the corner of St. Andrew’s Drive and Buffalo Soldier Trail, started its citizenship classes in 2011.
“We are a very civic minded church and we felt that it was something that was necessary,” explained Lingo. “This is a very personal class where we give them one-on-one help to make sure they understand everything.”
The eight-week course helps students prepare for the interview and exam required of every person wishing to become a naturalized citizen.
Immigrants have to learn the answers to 100 questions covering U.S. history, geography and government.
“We also talk to them about what to wear for their interview, how to behave, and what they should expect during the process,” said Larson. “By the time they finish the class they probably know more about the U.S. government and history than most Americans do.”
Over the years, dozens of people have been through the class representing countries across the globe, including Afghanistan, Brazil, Columbia, Honduras, Japan, Mexico, Panama, Peru, Philippines, Russia, Italy, and South Korea.
There are currently 16 students in the free class and, although the church does not require proof of legal residency, all participants are either green card or visa holders.
Among them is Adela Mungarro, who has lived in the U.S. for 23 years. She moved to Sierra Vista from Naco, Mexico, after marrying a U.S. citizen.
“When I first got here I couldn’t speak a word of English, but I started working as a cook at Buena High School and learning through the kids,” she said.
As a green card holder – someone who has been granted authorization to live and work in the U.S. on a permanent basis – Mungarro said she had never felt the need to become a citizen.
“But my kids and grandkids have been telling me that I should do it,” said the mother-of-two and grandmother-of-five. “A friend of mine, who is German, told me about this class.”
After three weeks of lessons Mungarro, 55, admits she is worried about retaining the information in the naturalization test study materials.
“Some people have told me the class is easy, but for me it’s hard,” she said. “But I want to do this for my family and because I will have more opportunities, like the right to vote.”
Mungarro still has family living in Naco and regularly crosses the border to see her Mexican relatives.
She is not, however, concerned about a federal crackdown on immigrants, which saw some green card holders detained when the Trump administration issued new guidelines in January, before they were halted by court proceedings.
That order targeted citizens of Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, and Libya.
“I don’t think I have anything to worry about because I have done everything legally,” she said.
Tony Pham, owner of Indochine Family Restaurant in Sierra Vista, who became a U.S. citizen five years ago, also emphasized the importance of legal entry.
Pham arrived from Vietnam a decade ago, following in the footsteps of other family members who sponsored his citizenship application.
“This country gives opportunities to everyone and you have those opportunities if you follow the laws. And you have to follow the laws,” he said. “It must be equal for everyone.”
After coming into the country and successfully gaining a green card, Pham had to wait five years before he could apply to become a citizen.
“Becoming a citizen was really important for me,” he said. “I came from a communist country, where they don’t care about what the people think, to a country where you can have a voice.
“Here, every vote counts and we have the right to choose who represents us.”
Pham also saw the civics test as an opportunity to learn more about his adoptive country, but admits that because he already spoke English it was an easier process than for those who have to learn the language from scratch.
Since becoming a citizen, Pham has become a successful businessman, and said he’s grateful to the United States for giving him that opportunity.
“Being here has given me more opportunities to help other people as well as my family,” he said. “I have full control over what I can do and I have the rights of every U.S. citizen to live my life how I want to live it.”