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Local resident, Karen George, shares her naturalization story and the process by which she became a United States citizen from England

RAMONA MCCALLISTER - Karen George is in her element at her English tea and bake shop, AKs Tea and Bake Shoppe.

The process to become a United States citizen, or naturalization, requires copious steps and a minimum of five years of being a permanent resident.

Prineville resident, Karen George, knows the process very well, as she obtained her citizenship less than one year ago — a process and accomplishment of which she is immensely proud. Over a cup of English tea, George unfurled her experience — which she speaks of fondly — of becoming an American citizen.

Naturalization is commonly defined as the process through which a legal immigrant of the United States becomes a U.S. citizen. Certain criteria need to be met to begin this process. These criteria include: Being of age (be at least 18 years old); being a green card holder or even a permanent resident for at least five years; living in the same state for at least three months before filling out the application; being physically present in the U.S. for at least 30 months out of the last five years before submitting the application; being able to pass the given English test and U.S. history and government exams; and having no criminal background and being in good standing.

George comes from a background in finance. She has also had a cake decorating business, in addition to her current business, located in Sweet Willow and Company, AKs Tea Room. She has a delightful English accent, which she acquired from growing up in Windsor, which is approximately 20 miles west of London, England.

She indicated that her business idea was born when she was having coffee and bagels in Prineville with a friend, which did not have a hint of British, whatsoever.

"We decided we couldn't get a decent cup of tea anyway," she laughed. "The gentleman said. 'I think you should just add a tearoom.' I said, 'I think you are right.' Eight weeks later, we opened AK's (Tea Room). I wanted somewhere people could just come and sit down. It was like the tea rooms I knew that I grew up in."'

George's journey to citizenship began when she met her husband, Tony, at a wedding in England. He was recently widowed, and Tony had come to England for his niece's wedding. They went out to dinner a couple of times while he was visiting. George stated that she knew his family because they were all qualified dance teachers. George is qualified in ballroom and classical sequence.

"My family did it — my grandparent, my parents and my sister is a reigning junior formation champion," stated George of her family history in the art of dance.

She indicated that she used to compete, and Tony's niece also used to compete, and she knew his family through the dancing world, even though she didn't meet Tony until they met at his niece's wedding.

"When he went out to the states, I came back here (England), and we just kept in touch. I came out to visit there, and then he came up for Christmas. We stayed in touch."

They talked about getting together, and whether she might consider moving to Prineville. Tony did not want to move to England.

"He has been here (in Prineville) 30-something years now, and I have been here 14. I thought, 'OK, I don't have children, so it would be an adventure just to see what happens over here.'"

George went to the American Embassy in London and asked for an extended visa to come over to Prineville for six months. She rented out her house in England to a friend. George found Central Oregon incredibly quiet, as she was accustomed to Windsor and was used to the sound of the city and the freeway.

"It drove me mad, so every now and again he (Tony) would send me over to Bend to get some noise."

After six months, she went back to England, and she and Tony stayed in touch.

"I kind of missed him, so we talked about me coming over here," she said. "From there, it just ended up, 'We will figure it out — how do we do this, how do we do it, both legally, and what is it going to take?.'"

George indicated that if you come back within only months after a temporary visa, you take the chance of getting red flagged when flying into the country. She did get red flagged and stopped by immigration.

"They did let me come through eventually but with a warning that the next time I left the country, I had to stay away for more than six months before I came back."

She said that she had the option to obtain a fiancé visa, but it could take up to three years. She couldn't obtain a work visa, so they opted for a visitor's visa. While she was in the United States, they could get married and then apply for a change of status.

"That is the route that we took," she emphasized.

Karen and Tony were married in Mau, Hawaii in April, and once they had their marriage certificate, they went online to the immigration services website.

"For what we were doing, it was really helpful and very straightforward to find the information that you needed."

With a change of status, she went from being a visitor to applying for a green card. Her husband had to fill out a financial statement in order to sponsor her. George had to do her biometrics (fingerprints and photographs, and background check.) Tony also had to do a background check.

"He could only sponsor me if he is a citizen, so he became a citizen so that we could actually do it this way."

George indicated that she had a temporary green card for two years. After that time, she had the temporary status changed and taken off. She and her husband also had to prove that they were a legitimate couple, and she had to carry a letter that said that she was in the process of changing from a temporary green card.

After 14 years, George decided that she wanted to become a citizen. She felt vulnerable, since at this point in time, she could leave the country but not come back, since she did not have a current green card. If she was stopped, she had to always have her letter in hand.

It took George a year to get the process complete to obtain her citizenship. She had to be a permanent resident for five years before she could begin the process. One of the last parts of the citizenship process included a test where she needed to study 100 possible questions about American history, civics and American Government.

"They ask a maximum of 10, of which six had to be correct," George clarified. "There are lots of things that I kind of knew already, because I am aware of what is going on," she added.

George stated that she had an enjoyable experience in this part of the citizenship process. She had friends who helped her study for the test.

"I had a lot of people who helped me with it, and a lot of people were horrified that they didn't know the answers and I did. According to the website and talking to my immigration officer, there are only 33% of Americans who would pass the test."

Upon going to Portland to take her test, the immigration officer asked her where Prineville was located. It was two weeks before things opened again during the COVID lockdown.

"It is about three-and-a-half hours over the mountain, depending on the weather," George answered.

The woman made the effort to get her sworn in, at her office that day.

"I said, 'That is very gracious of you, and I appreciate it.'" George said. She then indicated the officer said, "I have been doing this for 20 years and I love my job and you have been here for 14 years. You have done everything by the book, and you have obviously studied. For people like yourself, we want to welcome you to America, and we want to be able to do this for you, and to save you a seven-hour round journey for three minutes of swearing and oath."

George concluded of her immigration officer from Portland and the process, "She was lovely — my lady. I hear and read some horror stories about the process, so although there was a long waiting time, I had it easy with the route we took."


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