RIDGEFIELD — American citizenship has been a dream deferred for Marco Avalos’ parents.
A junior at Ridgefield High School, Avalos, 16, has a mother from Mexico, a father from Pakistan — and although they’re both legal residents, neither is a naturalized citizen. His mother has lived longer in the U.S. than in her native country, and his father is still working through the immigration process.
Avalos, along with classmates, learned about the challenges and responsibilities that come with immigrating to the United States through a multipart project in their U.S. history class. And class members also learned about their families’ own immigration stories, including a surprising revelation for Avalos: He traced some of his family tree back to the Netherlands.
“I found out I was part Dutch,” Avalos said. “That surprised me, actually. I thought most of my family was Mexican.”
He has family members who have more Dutch blood than he does, on his mother’s side, including an uncle he describes as pretty “pale.” And if people were to see them together, they’d “probably just think we’re friends” as opposed to family members, Avalos said, jokingly.
The first-time project has been the brainchild of his
tory teachers Gregg Ford and George Black, who wanted to engage students in a different type of discussion about the responsibilities of citizenship.
The timing worked, Ford said, because it’s an election year full of hot-button topics ranging from gay marriage to legalizing marijuana. And those are on top of a contentious presidential election.
The first part of the class included filling out a 10-page citizenship application, taking the same intensive history test that prospective citizens take, and participating in a naturalization oath ceremony administered by Clark County Superior Court Judge Robert Lewis.
If students were born in the United States, they filled out the application by researching their ancestors and acting like one of them as a way of personalizing the experience. Then they had to successfully “mail” the application and a fake check for the cost of the $680 application fee. It’s the same naturalization process that 694,193 people successfully completed in 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the agency that enforces and tracks immigration.
A lesson is born
Ford came up with the idea for the class after watching the documentary “Citizen U.S.A.: A 50-State Road Trip” on television. The documentary shows an actual naturalization ceremony, something he’d never seen before.
More than a simple assignment — such as studying the U.S. Constitution, a typical year-starter for Ford’s class — the citizenship assignment was intended to get the kids to talk inside and outside of class. So far, Ford said, it’s worked.
“I was surprised how many carried on a great conversation about all of this,” Ford said. “The application process itself is eye-opening.”
Students in the class said it helped them not take for granted citizenship and the responsibilities that come with it, including the big issue of voting.
Emily Boyd, 16, said that, aside from discovering that her great-great-grandparents were Welsh, she learned about the hurdles immigrants face to become citizens.
“I think as natural-born citizens, we’ve learned a new respect for it,” Boyd said.
Sierra Riopelle, 16, agreed, saying, “We learned what being a citizen really means.”
The students weren’t the only ones who learned something from the class.
Ford said he had no idea so many students would come to the assignment with personal stories.
“When I started it, I didn’t think I’d hear how many people had parents or relatives who’d gone through the (naturalization) process,” Ford said. “But it was a lot — a lot.”