Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici stops by to talk as class strives for citizenship

SUBMITTED PHOTO - Eleven immigrants graduated from Unidos Bridging Community citizenship in preparation for  the naturalization exam and got a visit from Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici.

Congresswoman Suzanne Bonamici made a surprise visit to the Unidos Bridging Community citizenship class graduation March 12 in Newberg.

Unidos had 11 immigrant graduates who completed the class that helps them prepare for the naturalization exam in Portland. Two of the graduates came from Chile, two from Iran and seven from Mexico and all are now on their way toward becoming citizens.

During the graduation ceremony, no one knew that Bonamici was going to appear. "They were thrilled to meet this person that they had heard about," Unidos President Sally Godard said. "Most of the immigrants that are here come from pretty poor areas and to have the opportunity to meet someone from the government, who is a responsible person of whatever political persuasion and doing government work, is really exciting."

Bonamici stayed for 15 to 20 minutes and talked to everyone in the class, Godard said.

The next step for the graduates is to take the national naturalization exam in Portland.

"One of the 100 questions is, 'Who is your congressperson for the House of Representatives in your district?' So, they had learned her name and seen her picture. She was able to surprise them by just coming into the room. This was really fun!!" Godard said.

To become a citizen through naturalization one must be approved through an extensive application process, be fingerprinted and have had a "green card" (legal permanent residence status) for five years or three years if they are a spouse of a U.S. citizen. Then they have an interview at the offices of the United States Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) in Portland. At this interview, they are asked questions about their application during which they are assessed for understanding and speaking basic English. Afterward, they must pass an oral exam for reading basic English, writing basic English and answering questions regarding U.S. history and government.

The process takes six to 12 months, depending on factors including missing information, complications in personal history or if the USCIS system is backed up with applications.

"Although the process is long and costly for many immigrants, the more difficult process is that of getting the required green card or legal permanent residence, which then allows one to be on the pathway to citizenship," Godard said.

Godard co-founded Unidos in 2012, although a group of folks started talking about doing something in 2011 following a conference on immigration.

"About 100 people attended and half were Latino," she said. "It was how many came that made us understand that we needed to do something ongoing. In the fall of 2011, we decided for a next step and we voted. We started in McMinnville and Dayton and the goal all along has been to branch out into other parts of the county."

Since 2012 the organization has taught more than 400 students in Yamhill County and branched out to Newberg around 18 months ago.

"We teach the class in Newberg during the winter months in 15 sessions and try to do it twice a week," Godard said.

The group meets at the Newberg Public Library and holds two classes -- one in English for the younger students who know more English, and the other in Spanish.

"The Spanish class is often those of an older age who have a difficult time learning English," Godard said. "If they are older they are allowed to take the exam in Spanish."

"Trust building is important right now in Newberg because we are new in the area and don't know us that well," she added. "Many of the students do not have computers in their homes or Internet access but they like to text message and use Facebook. We are very active on our Facebook page, to reach out and let people know that we are here."

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