Illegal immigration often is the subject of heated debate in the United States. What gets less attention is legal immigration, and how newcomers become citizens. It is not easy. They have to pay a fee, learn English and acquire a working knowledge of American history and government. Many end up knowing more about their new country than a lot of native-born U.S. citizens.
This year, the U.S. government is providing financial support for more than 70 organizations across the country to offer classes to help immigrants attain citizenship.
In a classroom just outside of Washington, a small group of immigrants learns what it means to be an American. The class costs $100 and is a financial hardship for many of them. "Because a lot of people right now they don't have the money to pay the class," said one man.
Elsy Ventura, from El Salvador, said "I'm a single mom, my mother lives with me and I have to support everybody."
But after October 1, many classes will be free for immigrants through a program funded by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Donna Kinerney at Montgomery College said "If you don't have this access to these resources then folks are really left to their own devices. Some folks will do just great with that and other folks will really struggle." She expects to see more students at citizenship classes when they are free. Last year, 13 organizations received a total of just over $1 million.
This year the funding has grown to almost $8 million, making it possible for 75 organizations to hold classes like this one for immigrants who want to be U.S. citizens.
The classes teach students English and the history and government of the United States.
Alejandro Mayorkas is the director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "We hope to make it an easier transition for people to realize their aspirations of becoming U.S. citizens," he said.
A class like this will help Elsy Ventura and other immigrants achieve a special, common goal. "I want to have rights as anybody else in this country," she said.
And one day join other immigrants at a ceremony like this where they can all stand up, swear an oath, and become legal citizens of the United States.