OGDEN — Maria Calzada was there, in part because she wants to be able to vote in 2024.
“I would like to vote (in) the next presidential elections,” said the Roy woman, originally from Mexico.
Jorge Moro, sitting nearby, was there because he wanted to demonstrate that immigrants can become U.S. citizens. “I want to show all of my family (that) we can,” said the Ogden man, originally from Costa Rica.
The Weber County Library System offers citizenship classes for immigrants at the Main Library in Ogden. Calzada, Moro and a handful of others were there on a recent Monday, preparing for the day, they hope, when they can finally take the oath to become U.S. citizens. The program has been around for about 10 years, estimates Te Anu Tonga, one of the instructors, and she said 19 new U.S. citizens emerged from the classes last year, with four new Americans so far this year.
The program’s results counter some critics’ image of immigrants, particularly undocumented immigrants, as unwilling to embrace the U.S. system. Indeed, Tonga, herself a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from New Zealand, thinks those sitting in on such a class may develop a new understanding of immigrants. “Really, these people are doing the best they can to uphold the law,” she said.
More significantly, perhaps, the program serves another important purpose — helping those who go on to become citizens attain a sense of stability. Those who take part, many originally from Mexico and the rest of Latin America but others from points scattered around the globe, are typically legal permanent residents in the country hoping to take the next step up the immigration ladder.
“Knowing you belong somewhere is probably one of the most powerful experiences you can have,” Tonga said.
The classes meet Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evenings at the Ogden library and are held in nine-week cycles. Students typically have filed an application for citizenship with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, known as an N-400, or are in the process of doing so. The class helps them brush up on their English, fine-tune their N-400 applications so they properly fill them out and understand the U.S. history they’ll be expected to know as part of the test to become a citizen.
But Tonga says she aims to convey much more. It’s not just about properly filling out a form or memorizing facts — the first U.S. president, the date the U.S. Constitution was written, the difference between the three branches of government. It’s about truly understanding the U.S. system, the checks and balances in the federal government, the importance of civic involvement and more.
“Our goal is to put out the best citizens our country has ever seen,” she said.
The program has a special place in Weber County, which has its share of foreign-born residents, mainly from Mexico. In Ogden, 12.8% of the population, or 10,913 people, came from other countries, according to U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey figures for 2013-2017. An estimated 3,194 were naturalized citizens and the other 7,719 fit in some other category — legal resident, DACA recipient or undocumented immigrant, perhaps.
‘I WANT TO BE FREE’
Garimirka Chaparro, originally from the Dominican Republican, went through the library class. She was at a party Tonga organized last month at the library, meant to honor those, like her, who had taken the library class and gone on to become U.S. citizens.
“I want to be free. I want to vote, too, and I want to be an example for my family,” Chaparro said.
Nong Morrison, originally from Thailand, also went through the class and also attended the party, which featured comments by Ogden City Councilman Luis Lopez, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from Mexico.
“The thing is, my kids grew up here and all my family’s here,” said Morrison, now living in Ogden.
So with her kids grown up and out of the house, she finally had time to go through the citizenship process. Whatever the case, taking the steps to become a citizen was more than just a way to fill her idle time.
“I can vote, just like everybody else,” she said. “This is mine now. It’s mine. I want my kids to be proud of me.”
Lopez recalled his own journey from Mexico to the United States and the process as an immigrant to get citizenship, to get an education, to advance professionally. “We’ve been through so much. It’s so hard to accomplish what you’ve accomplished,” he told the group.
He went on, encouraging the newly minted Americans to embrace the U.S. system, to be civically engaged. But he also said they should remember where they came from.
“Don’t give up any part of your culture,” he said. “Don’t give up your customs.”
‘WANT TO BE A CITIZEN’
Back in Tonga’s class, she touched on the three branches of government, the four U.S. House members serving Utah, the number of immigrants currently serving in Congress, the Revolutionary War and more. She read short sentences, asking the students to write them on whiteboards to practice for the written portion of the citizenship test — “Canada is north of the United States,” “American Indians lived here first,” “Freedom of speech is a right.”
She also offered a pep talk about what makes the United States unique, the ability of citizens to speak out, to vote and pick their leaders. “There are so many countries where people don’t get to choose who’s in government. There’s no voice, no representation,” she said.
Moro, the student originally from Costa Rica, said most of the information in the class was new to him. It can be confusing, trying to remember it all, he said. But he was there, notebook in hand, asking questions of Tonga and offering answers. His citizenship application is in process and he is scheduled to interview and test to become an American in March.
“I’m here because I want to be a citizen,” he said.
For more information on the library program, call Tonga or Lydia Hunter, who’s also involved in it, at 801-337-2646.