2016 Year in Citizenship

In 2016, the CARECEN citizenship program served 536 different clients from a diverse variety of backgrounds.  In 2016, our program:

  • conducted 454 naturalization eligibility screenings
  • filed 239 applications for citizenship (Form N-400)
  • registered 118 new voters
  • And conducted outreach presentations and citizenship information sessions all over the DMV!

CARECEN served clients from all throughout the Washington D.C., Maryland, and Virginia region.


Clients were most heavily concentrated in Wards 1 and 4 of D.C., but came from all areas of the District too.

While the majority of the clients in the citizenship program came from the District of Columbia, many came from the neighboring counties of Virginia and Maryland as well.

In 2016, the citizenship program worked with clients from many different walks of life, socioeconomic backgrounds, and national origins.

A great majority immigrated to the United States from Latin American countries, with the most represented nation being El Salvador ( 57%). A few clients, however, immigrated from other countries throughout Africa and Europe.

Their ages ranged anywhere from 18-87, with the majority of clients falling between 50-70 years of age and the median being 52.

Those in the citizenship program had a diverse range of educational levels, between anywhere from no formal schooling (11%) to full college degrees (8%).

Out of all of our clients, 60% of them were female

After determining their citizenship eligibility, CARECEN held citizenship classes to prepare students for their naturalization interviews at the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services’ offices.

In those classes, 35 CARECEN volunteer teachers taught 317 different students, while tutoring 19 of them individually. This totaled 1,248 hours of citizenship class instruction.

A beginner citizenship class at CARECEN

A beginner citizenship class at CARECEN

Our volunteers were crucial to the success of our program. Over 300 volunteers contributed over 4,000 hours of service through tutoring, teaching, conversation practice, mock interviews, and voter workshops.

Conversation practice at CARECEN with volunteers

Conversation practice at CARECEN with volunteers

Student Success Story — Leopoldina:

At 77 years old, Leopoldina discovered that she didn’t qualify for a language exemption because she had only been in the United States for six years.  At first, she was desperate and thought that she would never be able to become a citizen.  But then, Leopoldina thought of her undocumented son.  “I did all this effort at my age for him”, she said.

Leopoldina studied and studied.  “It was not easy,” she said.  “To learn a language at my age, things just don’t sink in like they used to.  But I studied…every day I studied.  I never got tired of studying…well, my hand did get a little tired, but it was worth it, because now I have a certificate that says I am a US citizen!”

The day of her interview, Leopoldina was nervous that she nearly made herself sick.  “The time right before the interview is the most difficult, with the fear and doubt in yourself.  But confidence is important, because once I was in the interview, I felt like it was easy because of everything I learned.”

Leopoldina with her volunteer teacher

Leopoldina with her volunteer teacher after passing her exam

In addition to classes, our program includes field trips to sites relevant to the citizenship exam.   CARECEN partners with the National Parks Service to offer a customized Monument Tour experience for our classes.

A CARECEN citizenship class on a field trip to the National Mall

A CARECEN citizenship class on a field trip to the National Mall

To further expand our reach, last year CARECEN partnered with the D.C. Public Library and Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School to host citizenship information sessions and workshops.  We also worked with the D.C. Board of Elections to engage in voter registration outreach in our communities, and received funding from USCIS and the DC Mayor’s Office on Latino Affairs.

Image result for dc ola logo

Members of the American University and Georgetown University communities worked with CARECEN to promote citizenship and service learning among their students and staff.

When it was finally time for their naturalization interviews for United States citizenship, CARECEN helped interpret for their clients 52 times during their official interviews.

Florida Abigail Fernandez Del Cid

Florida Abigail Fernandez Del Cid (El Salvador)


Asuncion and Julia Escobar 5/10/16

Asuncion and Julia Escobar (El Salvador)










Juana Rosa Romero de Leon and Augurio Leon 3

Juana Rosa Romero de Leon and Augurio Leon (Peru)

Jose Salgado

Jose Salgado (El Salvador)











“I want to thank CARECEN for the help they gave me to be able to take this big step to becoming a citizen of this country, which for me is a blessing from God.  It has so many benefits for you, for your family, and for this country.  Si se puede!” –Juana Ordoñez (immigrated from El Salvador)

In 2016, the CARECEN citizenship program helped 155 clients become new United States citizens!


Which equates to a 97.8% interview pass rate!

In 2017, we plan to do even more.  With your help, we can reach even more potential new citizens!

Summer Citizenship Intern Reflections

This summer, our Citizenship and Civic Participation (CCP) department had four interns who experienced the daily workings of the program and what we do here for the Latino community of immigrants in Columbia Heights. Shea Christian, Caroline James, Camila Salvador, and Briggitte Suastegui worked on curriculum development, individual tutoring for the citizenship test, citizenship class registration, and data entry and management for our clients. They were also given opportunities to interpret for an official USCIS interview and attend Naturalization ceremonies. We asked them to share some of their experiences, thoughts, and insight on the subject of immigration and the work we do here.

What are some of your thoughts on the citizenship process after your time here?

CJ: As someone who has never looked into or tried to understand the citizenship process before, I learned so much. I think if people who feel negatively towards immigrants had a chance to understand everything you need to go through to become a citizen they would have a greater respect for the population. It is just a good reminder to learn as much as you can before drawing conclusions, especially in this political climate where sweeping generalizations and nasty words about people from other countries are becoming the norm.

CS: What struck me the most was the amount of preparation and sacrifice – over the course of weeks and months – for a 20 minute interview. The average American may not be phased by missing a couple of days of work, but for our clients, that may be giving up a lot. Studying in a new language, commuting to USCIS offices in the middle of nowhere (a lot of the time via public transport), missing time with children and family, having to re-prioritize other important, personal obligations…is difficult, to say the least. That fact alone makes the process grueling and intimidating for most. But it also makes success a lot sweeter, and makes the whole process – tears, sweat and sacrifice included – very worthwhile.

SC: Becoming a citizen is definitely no easy feat.

Do you have any favorite experiences?

BS: One of the most rewarding and nerve wracking experiences this summer was having the opportunity to interpret at a USCIS citizenship interview. I knew this was something I wanted to do by the end of the summer, because I wanted to have the experience of interpreting in a professional setting (and something that was out of my comfort zone). I knew I would regret it if I let the opportunity pass by, but that didn’t mean I was incredibly nervous about it. I did my interpretation for an Ecuadorian man in the Fairfax USCIS office and all in all, it went well. I was faced with the task of navigating a double interpretation – the USCIS officer we got that day was deaf, so he had his own interpreter to translate between sign language to English (which I would then translate into Spanish). It was slightly distracted by the added step of interpretation I was not expecting, but the nerves went away once we had gotten a few questions in. And nothing is better than having your client pass and break out of their quiet shell of the morning commute (due to the nerves, no doubt) to a talkative and ecstatic soon-to-be new citizen. That’s one experience I wouldn’t trade for the world.

CJ: I tend to not usually feel patriotic but working in this position has given me more reason to than I have ever had before. There was something so special about looking across the courtroom at a naturalization ceremony and seeing the newest U.S. citizens. It is so empowering to finally be able to participate in the democracy of a country that you have lived in for so long. It made me forget for a moment a lot of the nastiness that goes on and smile knowing that I live in a nation of immigrants. Like Briggitte described, I also got the opportunity to work as an interpreter at USCIS and I completely agree that the experience is incredibly valuable. Also on a more personal level, I really solidified my understanding of US history and government structure through helping clients study the civics questions and through re-working the curriculum for citizenship class. I know those civics questions like the back of my hand.

CS: My experience with tutoring was perhaps one of the more fulfilling parts of my time at CARECEN. Not only did I gain insight and a deep understanding of the naturalization process, but interacting with clients on a daily basis and consequently forming personal ties with community members truly allowed me to put a face on the plight at hand, expanding past my familial experience with immigration issues. Growing up in the Mount Pleasant area within the Salvadoran community, I’ve often felt very disillusioned with the American immigration system; but by sharing struggles and breakthroughs with clients, working together to achieve milestones that maybe weren’t even conceivable before, and jumping into an often times intimidating and scary process – together – I immediately felt comforted by the possibility of making a difference in one person’s private path to citizenship. After my time with CARECEN, I’ve found that it is a little less daunting and a little bit more hearteningly hopeful to celebrate the personal, albeit smaller victories, all while keeping our eyes on the bigger picture.

BS: The day to day work we did in the office was as rewarding as the special events we were able to attend, though. Never have I seen someone as excited as a woman who I helped register to vote on morning in the office. When I asked her if this would be her first time registering, instead of answering, she reached into her purse and pulled out her naturalization certificate with a grin on her face. She held it out proudly to me and said “it’s the first of many times”. I couldn’t help but be as excited as for her as she was. She had just recently been naturalized and couldn’t wait to vote in the upcoming election.

What about frustrations?

BS: The amount of times someone has come into the office in a panic about a letter they received in the mail (one that they can’t read because it’s solely in English) was a wake up call to the fact that this process can be highly difficult to navigate and is just, well, scary for those going through it. Their first questions are always “is something wrong?” or “what do I need to do?” – an initial reaction of something bad happening.

CJ: Like Briggitte touched on, if you are low literacy in your native language and have a minimal understanding of English and are you expected to navigate through an unfamiliar bureaucratic system, it can be overwhelming to say the least. Additionally some of the clients have had little experience in a school setting so they need to learn way more than just the information. They may need to solidify their reading and writing skills and learn techniques for studying that many people who have spent time in school take for granted.

SC: It’s really hard for a lot of native English speakers to understand how difficult it is to be thrown into a world in which everyone else is speaking a different language. English is just so widely used that many Americans have come to take it for granted that, even when traveling abroad, someone will be able to understand them. Not so for the majority of Central American and South American immigrants that CARECEN serves. The lack of adequate communication that results from this causes a variety of miscommunication problems, both within the system (getting all of the necessary documents filed for citizenship etc.) and within the realm of the actual test. While some clients are able to have the interview in Spanish because of their age and time they have lived in the U.S., many others have to take it in English.

Do you have any parting words about the experience?

BS: Working here I learned that for every person I tutored, it wasn’t just about being able to pass their citizenship test. It was about being able to be reunited with family members, it was about gaining economic stability through better jobs, and most relevant to the times, it was about being able to vote this November and having a say in who will head our government. Participating in our democracy, becoming civically engaged, having their voices heard – all of the qualities we pride ourselves in having as Americans, we share with these men and women who come weekly to class and tutoring. Yes, it was a great feeling to be able to see tangible results in the work I did this summer, but I think the most important part for me, and what made the biggest impact was to know that what I did here was only the start of a longer chain of accomplishments for the immigrant community in DC. Our clients go home and start study groups with friends and family who are also studying for the test, they recruit other to come to CARECEN to start the citizenship process, and most importantly, they go out and vote!

CJ: I LOVE CARECEN! And also I feel so proud of our clients and their hard work toward achieving their goals. My parting words are try to be empathetic instead of being mean (that is to you Donald Trump). Also yes we need to vote! Research all candidates, including Senators and Representatives, because real change does not happen just with the president.

SC: Working at CARECEN has been such a rewarding and eye opening experience for me. The people at CARECEN, employees, volunteers, and clients alike, are among the most inspiring people that I’ve met. The dedication and long hours that the staff puts in to make the world a better place for everyone, American citizen or not, is really incredible. The clients that I work with are equally amazing, as I’ve worked with them and learned their incredible stories and witnessed their dedication towards bettering their lives in the midst of some serious anti-immigrant sentiment. Every person has a journey, and working at CARECEN has taught me that I want to make mine as productive and meaningful as I can.

40 Years of Marriage and 1 Day of Citizenship


“The citizenship test is like marriage… both requires comprehension.  In marriage, you have to work to understand your partner.  Of course, on the test you have to understand English “

I had asked the two whether the citizenship test or 40 years of marriage was more challenging.  As his wife finished answering, Augurio shot her an ornery glance and added “It’s hard to say which is more difficult.”

Juana and Augurio met in Lima, Peru in the 70s.   They were friends, but it was Juana’s special blend of extreme optimism coupled with her practical, down-to-earth nature that caught Augurio’s eye.   “She was so positive, but not one of those women you throw money at to impress.  On a date, I offered to get us a taxi, but she said she was fine taking the bus.  There was something different about her, about how she saw things in the world.”  Augurio says that it is Juana’s optimism that drives her to make ambitious plans, while he tends to be a more cautious decision-maker, focusing more on the finance and the risks.

“I’ll give you an example,” he said.  “In October, for our 40th anniversary, she wanted to go away, but I always said “No,no, it’s so much money, and I can’t just take off work all the time.” But that weekend, she said, “Get your bag”, and I discovered that she had done everything under the table!  The tickets, the hotel, she even went to my boss to request time off for me! ”   Juana grinned to herself, and said, “He is worried about money, but I always tell him that we can’t take it with us, so we have to decide together to invest it wisely now.”

One of the investments they decided to make together was in U.S. citizenship.  Juana was ready to apply, but Augurio had his doubts.  She says “He was so nervous, saying, ‘What for?  I won’t be able to pass!”  At $680 for each application, it was no small decision, but they explained, “We decided to invest the money and to study.  It was important that we made the decision together, because it is an expensive investment. But in the end, we wanted to more fully belong to this country, because it is our home.  We want to vote, and we want to bring the rest of our family so that we can all be together”

Once the decision was made, each pushed the other towards success.  Juana is more comfortable in English, but introverted, whereas Augurio is gregarious, but struggled with comprehension.   Juana’s boss helped her find CARECEN’s citizenship classes, and they enrolled in two sessions of class to prepare for the exam.  After turning in their applications, they began to focus even more on their English, and traded relaxing weekends for study dates.  Juana would book a room at the Mt. Pleasant library, and the couple would spend the day dictating sentences to each other to improve their written English, and watching YouTube videos of interview simulations to improve their comprehension.

In January, their hard work paid off.  Juana said, “The officer finished the interview and said ‘Congratulations’.  That is what you wait for, after all that studying.  To hear the official say that word is an incredible moment.”   While Augurio’s interview was first, his naturalization ceremony was cancelled due to a blizzard, and Juana became the first of the pair to be sworn in as a U.S. citizen.   Augurio teased her, saying “You tricked me!  I thought we were doing this together, but you beat me to it!”   Just days later, Augurio was sworn in as well.

Juana Rosa  and Augurio Nunez visit

Earlier this week, Juana and Augurio returned to CARECEN to show off their certificates of naturalization and speak to their former classmates.  Augurio offered words of encouragement, stating, “If we can do it, you can too. I wasn’t sure it was possible, but thanks to CARECEN, the classes, the teachers, and my wife, today we are celebrating 40 years of marriage and one day of citizenship.”

In the 10 years that remain until their Golden Anniversary, the couple hopes to vote in upcoming elections elections, travel, enjoy their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and continue to reunite their family through petitions.  They aren’t sure what adventures lay ahead, but are excited to share their next 10 years as naturalized U.S. citizens.

Congratulations to Juana, Augurio, and all of our newly naturalized citizens, and Happy Valentine’s Day!

Juana Rosa Romero de Leon and Augurio Leon 2


Citizenship Volunteer Teacher Receives Community Empowerment Award

Emmanuel, Ana, Oscar

Proud teacher Emmanuel Caudillo congratulates two of his class graduates who recently became U.S. Citizens.

Every year, the Community Empowerment Award is given by CARECEN to recognize the accomplishments of an outstanding community and organizational leader.  Through their contributions to CARECEN and its mission to foster the comprehensive development of the Latino population in the Washington metropolitan region, they have helped CARECEN to succeed in strengthening both the immigrant community we serve and our community at large.

This year, during our 34th anniversary celebration, we were delighted to recognize the exceptional work of our longest-time citizenship volunteer teacher, Emmanuel Caudillo. Emmanuel has been teaching civics for 8 years and has helped hundreds achieve their dream of citizenship. His students describe him as passionate, very knowledgeable, detailed, and so energetic! Emmanuel is incredibly fond of his students and chose to celebrate his 30th birthday with them at CARECEN. In his brief acceptance speech Emmanuel shared that he was inspired to teach civics by Cesar Chavez, who also taught civics to the farm workers he organized, and also by his parents whom he helped practice for their citizenship exams as a child. Emmanuel is currently working on publishing his own citizenship textbook, to support even more aspiring citizens. We are so fortunate to have him part of the CARECEN family!

Emmanuel is a senior advisor to the White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics (WHIEEH). In this role, he oversees the operational duties of the initiative, outreach to Hispanic Serving Institutions, and youth engagement activities, including overseeing the WHIEEH Internship program.

From 2009 to 2013, he was a budget analyst at the U.S. Department of Education. He has also held research positions in various organizations, including Abt Associates and the National Council on Teacher Quality.

Emmanuel is very active in his community. In addition to his work at CARECEN, he currently serves on the board of directors of the Young Education Professionals and Briya Public Charter School.

Originally from Los Angeles, he holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a Master of Public Policy from The George Washington University.

On behalf of our team and community we serve, ¡GRACIAS!

Citizenship Students’ Journey Through History

By:  Stefanie Moran and Emma Israel, Summer Citizenship Interns

Each session, the students of CARECEN’s citizenship classes get the chance to leave the classroom behind and have a day’s lesson exploring the nation’s capital. This time around, that opportunity landed on a 95 degree Saturday in June. But the prospect of a full day worth of walking in the sweltering heat didn’t deter the more than 30 students who came out to explore the monuments and the National Mall. After meeting our team of park ranger tour guides, the group learned the stories of the Vietnam Wall, the Lincoln Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, and the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial.

Students meet Park Ranger Mike Balis at Foggy Bottom Metro at the start of the day.

Students meet Park Ranger Mike Balis at Foggy Bottom Metro at the start of the day.

The group started their historical adventure at the Three Soldiers Statue, looking out over the names on the lost lives on the Vietnam Wall. Next, attention shifted to Abraham Lincoln, where students read the emancipation proclamation and learned about Lincoln’s efforts to abolish slavery. All were in awe when they saw the stories they had been learning in class come to life. The journey then led them to the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, where the larger than life image of Dr. King served as a reminder of the fight for civil rights that was endured and continues today. Park Ranger Garcia, herself a daughter of Mexican immigrants, focused on the meaning the meaning of Dr. King’s iconic quote: “out of a mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” The students expressed their gratitude for all of his endeavors, and how his work created the opportunity for their own experiences in this country.

Students learn about the Civil Rights Movement at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Students learn about the Civil Rights Movement at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial.

Finally, the group walked through the rooms that represent each of FDR’s four terms as president and the challenging context of his presidency. Park Ranger Mike Balis shared his father’s experience during that time and his deep appreciation for the president as the country navigated through the Great Depression and World War II. They learned how all across the country – in cities and the countryside – felt the hardship of the Depression. The students were stunned to learn that President Roosevelt had restored the United States’ relationship with Latin America, and that without the support of the region, victory could not have been achieved.

Some of the students at the FDR memorial after learning about his many accomplishments as President.

Some of the students at the FDR memorial after learning about his many accomplishments as President.

“Que bonita historia” exclaimed one student after every story, and all nodded and smiled in agreement. Despite many years living in Washington, most of the students had never explored the monuments before and were thrilled to see history come alive right in their backyards.

CARECEN Welcomes New Citizenship Specialist

By Ana Negoescu, CARECEN

Last month CARECEN’s citizenship team grew after we welcomed Stephanie Lopez, our new Citizenship Specialist. Stephanie is currently providing paralegal assistance to our legal team in the area of naturalization and supporting brief services. In January she will begin required training and takesteph the necessary steps for becoming our second Board of Immigration Appeals (BIA)Accredited Representative. Once accredited, she will manage her own case load and represent citizenship clients before USCIS. Stephanie will also assist with organizing and conducting our naturalization information sessions and workshops by working closely with our partners and our citizenship and legal directors. She will play a vital role in integrating our citizenship instruction and naturalization application services by coordinating with our citizenship education team and ensure our students have all the information needed to complete their application for naturalization.

Stephanie was born and raised along the El Paso, Texas and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico border. She graduated with a degree in political science from the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). At a very early age, she discovered a passion for giving back to her community and since then has made a strong commitment to public service. She is particularly dedicated to fighting for the rights of immigrants and children.  In El Paso, she worked at the Paso del Norte Civil Rights Project where she assisted immigrant victims of domestic violence and other violent crimes in applying for immigration relief. Stephanie also served as a Court Appointed Special Advocate for children who have been abused or neglected and now find themselves caught in the middle of intimidating court proceedings. While in school, she was heavily involved on campus and in her community. She participated in the Bill Archer Fellowship Program in Washington, DC and in the Law School Preparation Institute at UTEP. She volunteered with numerous organizations in El Paso such as the USO, the Salvation Army, the El Paso Child Crisis Center, and the El Paso Bar Association. Today, she is thrilled to be back in the nation’s capital and is excited to be a member of the CARECEN family.

Stephanie aspires to be an immigration attorney, a career interest sparked by her eagerness to make a big difference in people’s lives. As daughter of immigrants, growing up on the border, she has experienced first hand the immigrant struggle and the hard work it takes to achieve dreams.  For her, working in the area of citizenship is especially meaningful, because she has witnessed the sense of accomplishment and pride that naturalization brought to her parents, who recently went through the process.

In her free time Stephanie loves to explore D.C. and its diversity, run and dance cumbia. Welcome Stephanie!


CARECEN and the National Immigration Forum Partner on New American Workforce

By Ana Negoescu, CARECEN

CARECEN is extremely excited to partner with the National Immigration Forum (Forum) and work together with New American PrintWorkforce (formerly the Bethlehem Project) in the Washington, D.C. area. New American Workforce draws inspiration from Bethlehem Steel, which in 1915 was one of the first U.S. employers to provide free English language instruction to its immigrant workforce. The project has expanded this idea to partner with businesses to offer citizenship services at the worksite. CARECEN is proud to enter into this partnership and continue the American tradition of aiding the immigrant workforce.

Specifically, CARECEN and the Forum work together to engage with local businesses and assist their employees in obtaining U.S. citizenship if they are eligible. This occurs through a series of outreach events, workshops, consultations, legal representation and civics instruction developed and implemented by both organizations and additional partners, as recruited by the Forum. The Forum leads all the business outreach, prepares these events, and follows up with employees as appropriate. CARECEN then offers citizenship services on the worksite, and aid in the follow up with employees.

For over 30 years, the Forum has worked to advance sound federal immigration solutions through its policy expertise, communications outreach and coalition building work, which forges powerful alliances of diverse constituencies across the country to build consensus on the important role of immigrants in America.

On October 7, CARECEN and the forum held their first collaborative citizenship  informational session at Doctors Community Hospital, in Lanham, Maryland. Around 20 Lawful Permanent Residents, who were hospital employees, attended and learned about eligibility requirements, the naturalization process, and the citizenship loan we offer through Acceso Credit Union. Next steps include individual screenings of those who are interested to pursue naturalization, and a citizenship application preparation workshop on November 20th.

We look forward to more informational sessions and workshops to serve more workers and their employers and thus redefine the “New American Workforce”.


Dreams that Refuse to be Deferred

By Irene Koo, CARECEN Summer Citizenship and Civic Engagement intern

This summer, I had the privilege of interning with CARECEN as part of the Citizenship and Civic Engagement program focused on education and empowerment. I write these words a few months out and many miles away, but I find that my experience with CARECEN has continued to stick with me. Over the course of two months, I had the chance to work directly with a vibrant and integral part of the DC, Maryland, and Virginia community. I tutored adults preparing for the United States citizenship exam and worked with students from Cardozo High School participating in our new leadership program. The most memorable part of teaching this summer was forming personal relationships with so many of the students and hearing their stories and experiences. Examining the role of the Supreme Court or causes of the Revolutionary War over a tutoring session could easily turn into chatting about weekend plans and cravings for pupusas. Brainstorming solutions to racial conflicts in the classroom balanced out goofy icebreakers and discussions about hopes for college and beyond. I approached this summer with the expectation that I would be teaching others, but instead came away with a deeper understanding of perseverance, justice, and what it means to be “American.”

One of the most insightful experiences for me came from working with a small group of ninth graders, all recent arrivals from Central America, at Cardozo High School.

First graduates of CARECEN’s Youth Leadership Program.

Twice a week, we met with the students to build leadership and communication skills and design a community service project. We discussed important historical social movements such as United Farm Workers and American Civil Rights, but also talked about issues affecting Cardozo and the DC community. I was regularly blown away by how thoughtful and passionate they were about finding solutions to real problems. To illustrate, the students decided to tackle the complex issue of in-school violence and racial relations. They collectively wrote a student petition for improved safety measures, met with their school counselor, and received signatures from their peers to present to the principal. Despite the fact that they knew very little English, the students demonstrated that they were willing to work together and step outside of their comfort zone in order to effect positive change in their new community.

Working with the diverse Latino community challenges narrow conceptions of identity. All of our students have a unique story and myriad reasons for coming to the United States, with some motivated by the hope of reuniting with family members and others by the desire for a better future. Although many identify as Salvadoran, Honduran, or Dominican, our students also share in common the desire to become Americans and call this country home. The possibilities afforded by citizenship are numerous, ranging from voting rights, welfare benefits, and improved job prospects. Yet becoming a citizen is a lengthy and involved process, notwithstanding the initial $680 application fee. Preparation for the exam itself consists of studying one hundred questions on US history, civics, and geography, reading and writing sentences, and conducting mock interviews to improve oral comprehension. Attaining citizenship and achieving proficiency in the English language is no small task, especially for many of our students who did not attend school past the elementary or secondary level. I remember translating for Ophelia, a sweet woman from El Salvador, for her first naturalization interview. After having practiced with her and knowing how hard she had studied, it was difficult not to feel disappointed when the official informed us she had failed the interview. Yet, the first thing Ophelia asked me when we stepped outside of the USCIS office was, “When can I come back to try again?”

As someone who was born a United States citizen, it’s difficult to understand the significance of citizenship and the joy of seeing the official stamp after a successful interview (whether that be on a first or fourth attempt). For many, this achievement is the culmination of a much longer journey full of adjustment and sacrifice. When I attended my first naturalization ceremony with Balthazar, a student from El Salvador, I was moved by the overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment from the new citizens and their families in the courtroom. It was refreshing to see how beautiful and inspiring our immigration process could be when it succeeds in serving the immigrant community, rather than limiting and excluding it. However, it is challenging to reconcile this celebration of American values and our “melting pot” culture and heritage while there are tens of thousands of immigrants in this country who are systematically denied basic human rights. For that reason, I want to conclude this reflection by mentioning the ongoing humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied children fleeing violence in Central America.

Our immigration system is outdated and broken, a fact made increasingly clear by our overflowing detention centers and ill-equipped law enforcement. In only the last few months, over 60,000 children from Central America have crossed the border into the United States. These refugees have not been met with understanding, but have been criminalized, detained, separated from family members, and deported without due process. We focus on how to keep people out, rather than considering the root causes of violence and instability that force young children to leave their homes. We teach our students the principles from the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, laud these values in our naturalization ceremonies, and then fail to live out these ideals in practice. Immigration reform is unquestionably complicated, but is at the same time an issue far greater than partisan disagreements. I’ve been frustrated by the continued delay of executive action and meaningless rhetoric from politicians who have the luxury of indecision. We greatly need reform, but perhaps empathy even more so.

The most important lesson I learned from CARECEN is that there can be no justice as long as there is indifference. Part of CARECEN’s citizenship program emphasizes the importance of civic engagement. After all, it is not simply being a citizen, but what we do with that opportunity that holds the power to change history. I am proud and encouraged by the widespread show of solidarity in the weekly vigils that have taken place outside of the White House. With continued action and perseverance, I am confident that the demands for justice and dignity for unaccompanied minors can become a reality. As I continue to learn more about the difficult, often dangerous, path of immigration and the long process towards citizenship, I reflect on the following quote from Maya Angelou: “Love recognizes no barriers. It jumps hurdles, leaps fences, penetrates walls to arrive at its destination full of hope.” Truly, I can think of no better embodiment of this love than the community I had the chance to work with this summer, full of individuals who have overcome innumerable barriers in their journey to the United States. If there is one word that encompasses this resilient community, it is hope.

Reflections of a CARECEN volunteer: Freshman Service Experience

by: Samantha Ewing, American University Freshman

AU students with CARECEN youth participants

“Starting my first year at American University, I prepared myself all summer for the experience of a lifetime. Along the way I was given all the usual sentiments of pride, and advice about college every student receives when embarking on this next chapter in life. I was told to expect speeches and icebreakers. I was prepped on ways to deal with the overwhelming amount of people I would be meeting and told the best ways to study, without sacrificing the fun only a college student could have. What I was never prepared for though, was just how much of an impact I could make, and how much of an impression could be made on me in just two days of a school mandated service program.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love community service, I truly believe that giving back to one’s community is something that strengthens not only the community but also the volunteer. So, of course when I was given the choice between Discover DC and the Freshman Service Experience here at American i jumped at the chance to serve my new-found community. As luck would have it, my randomly selected program ended up being here, at CARECEN, The Central American Resource Center in Columbia Heights DC. As a woman of Central American descent myself, I was beyond excited. Keeping in mind of course, that one can only speculate as to how much service they will actually be doing in the time-span of two days. Little did I know just how deeply I would connect with the program and how much it could change me.

Upon arriving at CARECEN, myself and my fellow volunteers were warmly greeted and promptly given an explanation as to what the organization did. In the hour or so that we listened to people speak, I learned about all the work the organization does here in DC and its work with sister organizations, in other locations across the country. Providing legal aid to people from all over the area, CARECEN is the true meaning of providing for one’s community. Not only do they help the community around them, but it was clear that they were aware of the larger problem. Executive Director, Abel Nuñez explained how helping the people here in Columbia Heights was only a portion of the amount of help was truly needed in order to make the situation better for both the people here and the people back in Central America.

The second day, myself and the other American University students were given the opportunity to speak with members of the youth group at CARECEN, high school students recently arrived to the United States and DC. In spite of having been in the United States for less than two years, the teenagers we spoke to showed a passion and excitement for school and college that I’d never seen. Having been a part of the CARECEN program they had gained confidence enough to conduct an icebreaker in English, as well as ask various questions about the college process and tell us about their hopes here in the United States.

While I went into the program skeptical, I can absolutely say that my two days at CARECEN are an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I was exposed to a group of people who work as hard as they can to give back to a such a prevalent community in the DC area. Not only did I see all the ways they were able to help the people here in the United States, but also the awareness of the real reasons problems the community faces,  as well as possible solutions to the problems and a real desire to educate the public on how they may be achieved. The experience was unbelievably eye-opening and made me realize just how much work could be done here. More so, I’ve seen first hand through CARECEN how much genuine care can help the people of the Latin American community in DC, help themselves. I hope to go back as soon as possible to volunteer and learn as much as I can about the program and the people who make the work they do possible.

Thanks to all the students who gave their time to CARECEN through the Freshman Service experience.  Best of luck during your freshman year!