Ganga Mongar’s pencil is covered in hearts and a pink eraser cap. She taps it on the table as she reels off the names of the Supreme Court justices. She’s is in her mid-40s, a mother of five, and a student at the St. Louis International Institute, where she’s enrolled in the Literacy Citizenship Preparation course. She comes three times a week for two hours, where, in addition to being drilled on U.S. civics, she’s learning how to read and write in English.
As tensions continue to rise over immigration in the United States, the desire for people to become U.S. citizens hasn’t abated. More than 7.4 million people have been naturalized in the past decade — more than 750,000 last year alone, according to the government agency that manages naturalization. Still, obtaining citizenship in the U.S. remains an especially difficult process, particularly for immigrants like Mongar, who never learned to read or write in their native language, much less English.
Mongar was resettled to St. Louis in 2011 with her family. Before that, she lived as a refugee in Nepal for nearly 20 years after fleeing Bhutan in the '90s. She met Sancha Subba, whom she affectionately refers to as “sister,” in the refugee camp in Nepal. Now the two of them attend class together. Both have a reputation of being ace students.
Subba, a 58 year-old grandmother, has been attending class for two years, and Mongar one. Mongar quit her job as a housekeeper to devote her attention to studying and taking care of her children. Before this class, both had never been to school.
Mongar, speaking through an interpreter, described what her first days of class were like, “I was nervous at first for not knowing the things. I didn’t know how to read and write, so because of that, I was lost and nervous.”
But now, Mongar reveals jubilantly, “I’m excited because after one month that I started citizenship class and the teacher interviewed me I didn’t know anything, but now there are a list of 100 on the citizenship paper, and I can answer all of those questions so I’m very much excited. And when the teacher talks about some topic in the class, I’m familiar with them already.”
For students in this class, never having been to school before isn’t unusual. The International Institute recommends students in the literacy citizenship prep class begin studying two to three years before they apply for naturalization.
For someone well versed in English, the test itself isn’t particularly difficult. U.S. Customs and Immigration Services, the government agency that administers the test, reports that 91 percent of applicants pass on their first try. The test is made up of 100 questions on U.S. civics, reading and writing portions and an interview to demonstrate that the applicant can proficiently speak and understand English.
For students who have lower degrees of literacy, the test can be tremendously difficult. Not only because most of the students don’t speak English, but also because many of the students in this class have never learned to read or write in their own language before coming to the U.S.
Two tries to pass
International Institute citizenship preparation classes serve immigrants, most of them refugees, to shepherd them through the naturalization application process, and, according to their data, 97 percent of those students pass the test. However, of the 3 percent who don’t pass the test on the first try, a third are in low literacy class.
The lower, first-time passage rate isn’t a surprise to Dinko Shobo, who teaches the class. After all, for most of his students, it’s their first time in a classroom setting.
“When you learn how to write that’s a separate learning from how to say it. How to say it is different from when you hear it. So, in addition to, you know, the mother tongue influence, there are challenges and difficulties to learn English by itself,” Shobo said.
Beyond learning the language, the level of vocabulary and comprehension required for the test is extremely difficult. Students may be asked to define abstract terms during the interview portion of the test, where they must be able to answer questions in proficient English about any of the 400 responses they filled out on their application for naturalization.
This is where things get especially tricky for low-literacy students. Most of the questions are easy, such as, “How many children do you have?” or, “What is your address?” But some, are more complex and require high levels of English comprehension such as, “Have you ever been part of a genocide?” If the examiner doesn’t think the applicant understands what they’re answering, they can ask the applicant to explain genocide in English.
Even the Oath of Allegiance, required to be recited during the test, has entire sections with series of words that could be considered arcane like, “I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty, of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen.”
Shobo said the varying levels of vocabulary on the test may even challenge a native English speakers.
“It’s difficult even for a regular American,” Shobo said. “The vocabularies on that. ‘Potentate,’ I don’t know how old this word is, but it’s just difficult even for — to this level of my understanding. I have been to university, but I had to read these words ahead of time to understand the concept and also explain it to them. And you never know from which angle the adjudicator asks them.”
What it takes
Students pay $780 dollars to apply for naturalization and take the test. which they are afforded two chances to pass. If they fail after that second chance, they have to wait 90 days or more and have to pay another application fee. For students like Subba and Mongar, this could mean even more time added to the 20-plus years they haven’t been citizens of any country.
The pressure to perform well on the test, because of time and money involved, is part of what makes the exam so daunting, said Paula Winke, an associate professor of foreign and second language testing at Michigan State University.
“It’s one of the highest stakes exams in the world. And they’re very high pressure, especially when your entire life is dependent [on it]. It changes everything about you and trickles down to your children and your children’s children.”
After two years of preparation, Subba has applied to take the test and she’s waiting for an interview date, while Mongar will spend more time studying.
“I still have a lot of things to learn," Mongar said. "So, I keep coming to the class and every day I might add a word in my memory. So every day, I come, I learn a new word and then that is good for me.”
Subba, speaking through an interpreter, said becoming a citizen would mean the world to her. "Even if I die, I will be very happy in heaven if I get a citizenship of the United States, so that’s why I’m struggling hard now.”
Follow Abigail on Twitter @AbigailCensky