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This Free Class Teaches Green Card Holders How To Pass The Required Citizenship Test

This semester, University of North Texas at Dallas students have been teaching local Spanish speakers how to take the U.S. naturalization test. The crowded class keeps growing.

"Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War…"  says University of North Texas at Dallas teaching assistant Yarik Molina, from the front of the large UNT Dallas auditorium at "Spanish in the Community" class on April 11. Molina then hands it off to the UNT Dallas student tag-team of Jovanna Moreno and Mariela Vargas.

"Bueno, Abraham Lincoln nació en …1809 in Kentucky."

About 50 green card holders — who are allowed to live and work permanently in the U.S. — have signed up for this free, semester-long course launched as a pilot two years ago.

For every five adults in this class, there's at least one, sometimes two, UNT Dallas students who've signed up to help them take the U.S. citizenship test. UNT Dallas student La Tavia Pearl is one of the teachers. 

Pearl's minoring in Spanish — it's not her native language — and she's not an education major. She just wants to help.  

"I wanted to assist our students with getting their citizenship," Pearl said. "And I want to see if you're trying to help yourself and you want to do something in life, I don't mind helping and it also is a credit course for my minor degree as well."    

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
La Tavia Pearl is one of the UNT Dallas students teaching green card holders how to pass the U.S. citizenship test required by the government to become a United States citizen.

At the Thursday class, Pearl worked with another UNT Dallas student, Lizbeth Munoz, teaching students in a breakout group. Munoz asked Crispin Martinez a question he might encounter on his citizenship test. Martinez is among the 50 people who signed up for this class.

"What is your ethnicity?" Munoz asks Martinez.

"I don't know what you mean," replies Martinez.

"So, Hispanic or Latino or not Hispanic or Latino?" Munoz asks, more speicifically.

"Spanish," Martinez says.


Munoz remarks, "Ok." 

Martinez, originally from Mexico, is an Uber driver who has lived in Dallas 21 years. Thanks to this course, the green card holder says he finally feels ready to tackle the citizenship test and pay the non-refundable $725 government fee. Where would he be without this class?

Credit Bill Zeeble / KERA News
Crispin Munoz has lived in Dallas more than two decades and had his green card for years, but he's never taken the citizenship test. Thanks to this class teaching him what it takes to pass, he now plans to take the test in May.

"No sé ... I don't know where. I don't know."

Yarik Molina knows. He took this class with his mom and says as a result they both passed the citizenship test. Now he's back, as the teaching assistant.

"I find this to be such a benefit, a thing that you don't find anywhere," Molina says. "They're out to fend for themselves without a program like this, and it makes us wonder, how are people are getting ready when there's nothing like this out there?" 

This class was just an idea three years ago. President Trump had just been elected. UNT Dallas Bilingual Education professor Sheryl Santos-Hatchett says the Spanish-speaking community near the school in southern Dallas was concerned. So were students.  She partnered with the League of United Latin American Citizens seeking a way to ease their fears.

"We were aware that there were many Spanish-speaking green card holders, some of them 20 years," Santos-Hatchett said. "So we found out what it takes to become a citizen. There are 100 questions you have to prepare for.  And there's an interview you have to take, and it costs a lot of money. And so when someone goes to become a citizen, they want to be successful."

And there are lots of success stories.  Student-teacher Parrie Mashburn says one of her students took the class and passed the test.

"I love people, and the way to connect with people is through food and language," Mashburn says. "I like cooking. But in order to communicate with people, you need to know the language to some extent. And I like helping. So I mean, in order to help people it is important to communicate with them."

And celebrate, too. This spring's Spanish in the Community class will graduate this week. 

Bill Zeeble has been a full-time reporter at KERA since 1992, covering everything from medicine to the Mavericks and education to environmental issues.