Monterey Park Library: A Bastion of Learning for US Citizenship Hopefuls
Free classes prepare students for new exam taking effect May 5.
By Nancy Martinez, EGP Staff Writer
Part 2 of an occasional series on local libraries.
The application may be getting longer and more complicated, but it’s not deterring a group of Monterey Park residents determined to become U.S. citizens. Nor is it keeping them from getting help preparing for the new, 21-page long citizenship exam.
“Which holiday is coming up?” Lilian Kawarantani asked her Monday night citizenship class at the Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library.
“Presidents Day,” answered the enthusiastic students taking the course in hopes of becoming American citizens by summer.
The course is offered through the library’s literacy program and is free to attend. Classes focus on history, government and the communication skills needed to pass the oral and civics parts of the naturalization application.
Nearly 400 students are expected to take the course this year. About 1,600 students of the class have become US citizens since the program began in 1984.
What may differentiate this program from others is that once a student’s citizen interview is scheduled, “we work with them independently to prepare them for what they may be asked during their oral exam,” Acting Senior Library Clerk Jose Garcia told EGP.
“Once you pass the interview, that’s a sign that you don’t need to be here,” Kawarantani told her class.
Use of the new N-400 Form for U.S. Naturalization starts May 5.
Even though the application is now 21 pages long, Kawarantani told the class that in the 10 years she has been volunteering for the program, the set of questions and the form itself have only changed twice.
“At least it is not the history questions that are changing,” she reassured her students after comparing the questions on the updated N-400 form.
It’s the same thing, they just changed some formatting and made it so they can record the information a lot easier, said Kawarantani, referring to the new bigger bar codes on each page.
The biggest change comes in the form of questions regarding terrorism and rebel connections.
“They expanded that,” Kawarantani said. “But don’t worry, I will teach you the new vocabulary that will be included in this section.”
The fee for the exam will stay at $680, including fingerprinting, also known as biometrics. Kawarantani told her students — ranging in age from their early 20s to their 60s — applicants over 75 do not have to pay the $95 biometrics fee.
“If you are over 75, why do you need to become a citizen?” asked 60-year-old Eduardo Sevilla, one of Kawarantani’s most vocal students.
“The biggest thing is only citizens can vote and voting right now is so critical,” Kawarantani answered. “I’m sure all of you will be voting in the next presidential election,” she said confidently. The program emphasizes the responsibilities that come with citizenship.
According to Sevilla, he enrolled in the course to “provide better financial support” for his family by becoming a US citizen.
He told EGP he doesn’t find the class hard, but admits some of his fellow classmates not as fluent in English as he may find it difficult to read and memorize the materials.
“The way she explains is very clear because she also tries to teach the language for those who may not understand,” he said, referring to Kawarantani. “Any conversation we have in class is related to the book and what we’re learning.”
“I make it relevant,” said Kawarantani, emphasizing that she doesn’t just follow the order of the workbook but rather brings up history as it pertains to current events. “I always bring it back to the [U.S. history] timeline and highlight questions that they may be asked,” she told EGP.
Sevilla said he was “looking for better chances in life” when he emigrated to the U.S. from Honduras in 1986. He has lived in Monterey Park for years and earns his living as a truck river.
“The first idea was to make money,” he said. “In other countries they say a lot of tales that in the United States there’s a lot of money, you even find it in the floor,” he said with a chuckle.
Sevilla, however, is one of the few Latinos enrolled in Monterey Park’s citizenship classes. The majority of students in the classes are Asian, reflecting the city’s predominantly Asian demographics, which according to the U.S Census is 67% compared to 27% Hispanic and 5% White Non-Hispanic.
People who complete the citizenship course have a 96% passing rate, according to Garcia. The oral interview is where most of the students who do not pass falter. It’s because they do not speak or understand English well enough, says Kawarantani.
“They probably know the answer to the question, but they don’t understand [how] the question” is being asked, adds Sevilla.
On Monday, the 20 or so students in the class talked about the significance behind the upcoming President’s Day holiday. The discussion was followed by a quiz testing what the students had learned about Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln whose birthdays will be celebrated this year on Monday, Feb. 17.
“Who was the president during the Civil War?” and “Who was the first president?” are two of the questions asked during the citizenship interview.
“We’re not going to forget the other presidents,” said Kawarantani with a smile as she instructed students to turn to page 138 in their history workbooks. “If you can name these five presidents I’m sure you will pass the exam.”
The citizenship courses are offered year-round and enrollment is ongoing at the library. The class is free but students are expected to pay a $20 material fee.
Preference is given to Monterey Park residents, but there are vacancies from time-to-time so non-residents interested in attending are encouraged to apply.
The Monterey Park Bruggemeyer Library is located at 318 S Ramona Ave. For more information, call (626) 307-1368. To read part 1 in the series, Commerce Spanish Book Club Offers More than Just Reading, It’s Therapy, go to www.egpnews.com .
EGP’s Library series explores the way today’s libraries serve a larger role in the community by providing services beyond just a place to find books.
February 13, 2014 Copyright © 2012 Eastern Group Publications, Inc.