Rock Valley College’s citizenship program is facing possible cuts and is at the mercy of the state’s economy. The program runs on $110,055 in state grant money. Without that nonprofit program, people seeking citizenship could be without the necessary tools and support to pass their naturalization test, which costs $675, paid to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Rock Valley College’s citizenship program is facing possible cuts and is at the mercy of the state’s economy. The program runs on $110,055 in state grant money.
College officials are hopeful that cuts won’t be so deep that they will hurt a program that has helped about 11,000 people, 500 each year, in 10 northern Illinois counties since the program began in 1995. Each year the citizenship program hosts two naturalization ceremonies locally, and hundreds of area residents become citizens.
Without that nonprofit program, people seeking citizenship could be without the necessary tools and support to pass their naturalization test, which costs $675 paid to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
It’s difficult for most natural-born citizens to understand that there are people who are born without freedom in other countries, said Amy Massoth, program director for Rock Valley’s citizenship program.
Completing the program and becoming an American citizen is one of the most important events in their lives. It’s on par with getting married and having children, she said.
“The end result means so much,” she said. “You just know they’re so proud and happy they’re getting their passports.”
Poplar Grove resident Johnny Tamayo was naturalized at a citizenship ceremony Thursday in Chicago, rather than waiting to be naturalized locally.
Tamayo, a native of Peru, believes he wouldn’t have been able to master both the examination and the feat if it hadn’t been for the assistance of Rock Valley’s program.
He arrived in the United States in 1997, leaving behind a career as a police officer in Lima. His wife, Maria, came to Illinois a year later with their older daughter, Lizeth. Their second child, Evette, was born eight years ago in the States, and the couple began working toward their citizenship in the spring. They did it to help their 15-year-old daughter take ownership of the United States as her home, and to aid in her ability to pursue her dream career in medicine. Maria will resume citizenship classes with the college Saturday.
“Becoming a citizen, I give her security,” Tamayo said in Spanish. “I’m always going to be Peruvian, but this is our home.”
The program makes it easy to take ownership of your destiny, he said.
“To tell you the truth, it’s incredible,” he said of his naturalization. “You have to go, you’re obligated to go. You need to take the responsibility and go and you memorize the materials because you know they’re going to ask you the following week in class what you learned.”
Maria is nervous about returning to citizenship classes and admits it is costly, but said she can do it now that her husband has completed the program.
“I speak English, but I am scared to,” Maria said. “It’s writing it and speaking it in the classes that take away my fear. I like it, and it helps.”
First grant in 1995
Rock Valley earned its first citizenship grant for the program in 1995. The grant is called the Refugee and Immigrant Citizenship Initiative, funded through the Illinois Department of Human Services.
The program helps people who want to become U.S. citizens prepare for their interview and test, and also helps them fill out their application. Courses aren’t required before the test, but they do help prepare people for the interview and exam, said Victoria Almonaci, citizenship program coordinator.
The program takes about six to nine months to complete, and every year hundreds of people in the Rock River Valley turn to it for materials, an application, classes or tutoring.
“We take a look at all of the eligibility standards and make sure the client meets them,” Almonaci said.
The program has open registration, and there usually isn’t a waiting list — program officials try to offer enough classes for everyone who wants to register, Almonaci said.
Waiting for solid numbers
Last year, the grant was for $110,055, said Nancy Chamberlain, Rock Valley’s director of communication. School officials can’t speculate on the amount of a reduction and if or when those funds might be restored, she said. They’re waiting for solid numbers before an official plan is put into effect, she said.
Rock Valley officials are hoping the cuts aren’t as much as they first anticipated.
Without that grant money, the citizenship classes will still be offered but could be on a limited scale, Massoth said.
Officials are still unsure just how deep the cuts will be — they’re crossing their fingers for minor cuts, but some fear the worst.
“It’s a little bit of a change in staffing,” Almonaci said. “We’re hoping they won’t see the difference. I’m guessing the change will be in the number of classes we’re offering. We were able to offer more classes in the past, and we’re not offering quite so many because we don’t have the ability.”
The program will have six classes in the coming months instead of 18, she said.
“It’s like anything else. The program has always been here to offer assistance to the applicant, and we’re still doing that,” Almonaci said. “As long as they’re willing to put forth the effort to study, with the assistance of the program, (they) will be successful and gain their naturalization and fully participate (in society).”
Almonaci’s position has been reduced to part time by the college, she wrote in an e-mail dated July 15. She began as an instructor in 2003. She agreed to remain at the school on a part-time basis until she can find a full-time position elsewhere. What she will miss the most is the heart of the program — its people.
“In any given year, we can see 50 different countries,” she said. “It might be someone from Mexico, South America, Central America, Italy, Liberia, Canada, any of the Asian countries, just a ton of people from all over the place.”
In all, six instructors are employed part time through the program this year.
Massoth hopes for good news this week.
“We had an amount of money that wasn’t very satisfying,” she said, after hearing of budget cuts toward the end of June. That prompted meetings with legislators.
They’re in the same boat as other social service providers — cuts are threatened each year but fortunately don’t always come, she said. “We’re just waiting to hear.”
In the meantime, staff members are looking for new grants and other forms of revenue, such as private foundations, with hopes that the program will continue to serve the same number of people in the same way.
Regardless what the future holds for the program, Almonaci knows it has helped hundreds annually to assimilate.
“It’s been great knowing we’ve been able to help that many people; I absolutely love it,” she said.
“Everyone has such a story to tell, and it’s really motivating for me to continue to do the work, knowing I helped them, but it’s really them. They make the time, and they’re the ones who have the courage to go on and overcome language barriers, insecurity and sometimes other things. A lot of them haven’t seen a classroom in sometimes 20 years; my God, it’s so fulfilling.”
Tamayo’s 15-year-old daughter, Lizeth, is grateful that the citizenship program is offered at Rock Valley. With her father naturalized, she soon will move from being a resident to a citizen and join her U.S.-born sister, Evette, in the freedoms of America while her mother studies to attain her citizenship.
“There’s not a lot of roadblocks anymore, they’re all gone,” she said, smiling at her father. “I’m proud of my dad; he had to study a lot for this.”
Betsy López Fritscher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (815) 544-3452. Cathy Bayer can be reached at email@example.com or (815) 987-1395.