Immigrants find needed help with CSUN project

Joseph Wilson

Carlos Murillo, along with his classmates, moved around and in between the rows of chairs looking for complete answers.

Each student had a slip of white paper with part of an answer to a question that will be on the U.S. citizenship test.

Talking to classmates, they practiced their English, along with memorizing facts about the U.S. government and its history.

After Murillo and his classmates completed the exercise, they broke up into three groups to study the naturalization application, citizenship test and interview.

Their experience is part of CSUN’s “Students Helping In the Naturalization of Elders” project in which students help immigrants study for their citizenship tests, among other legal issues. After immigrants receive citizenship, they attend a naturalization ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Murillo later sat at a teacher’s desk with CSUN student Omar Masry, senior business major, to review the application for naturalization.

Masry said the application’s questions could be confusing, even for him, who has spoken English his whole life.

Students who apply for citizenship, he said, need help interpreting the language of the application.

“It’s a roadblock for them,” Masry said. “They don’t know what can hurt them and what can’t.”

Masry said guiding students through the application has benefits.

“The thing I like most is allaying their fears,” Masry said. “(That’s) the most rewarding part of the experience.”

Masry got involved with the citizenship class through the SHINE project this semester.

Project SHINE connects CSUN students with immigrants of all ages to help them on their path to either citizenship or permanent residency, said Maureen Rubin, director of the center for Community Service Learning.

Rubin said Project SHINE is designed to help immigrants over 50 years of age but it is not a requirement for all the students in the classes to be over 50.

“Our students are really performing a valuable service in doing the practice interviews,” Rubin said.

Murillo said he came to the United States 18 years ago from El Salvador and got his papers through the amnesty granted to immigrants from El Salvador.

The United States held some parallels to El Salvador that he did not expect to find.

“I figured I was coming to a country that was rich,” Murillo said. “I didn’t expect to see homeless people living in the parks (like back home).”

He started working at a pizza place and began taking English as a second-language class after a few months.

“It was a way to get a better job,” Murillo said.

This year is the first year he said is eligible to apply for citizenship after the five years of mandatory permanent residence.

Murillo’s friends told him to become a permanent resident because he could get a better job.

After Murillo becomes a citizen, he wants to register to vote and move to Houston, where he is buying a house.

He works at Ralphs in North Hills and plans to move to Texas if he earns his citizenship.

Masry said he has seen the hard work Murillo and others have done in the class.

Besides Masry, there are about 140 CSUN students from various classes working with people on the application or reviewing blue flashcards made up of the 100 questions on the citizenship test.

Chris Lopez senior health education major, interacts in mock interviews with the students to test their ability to speak English, writing ability and knowledge of the government.

Lopez said people come back and share their experiences of the interview and the test.

“They talk about whether it’s hard or not,” Lopez said. “(But) they’re really excited about it.”

Lopez started with Project SHINE this semester, but he has already seen people come back after their naturalization ceremony.

“We’ve seen some people pass it. It’s cool to see it,” Lopez said. “They come back happy and stand in front of the class.”

Greg Dobie, citizenship instructor at the Van Nuys Adult School, said the CSUN volunteers are dedicated and help gives the students consistent practice.

“The SHINE volunteers are instrumental to us because without them we wouldn’t have one-on-one interaction,” Dobie said.

He said this semester the citizenship class has seen a large increase of students because of the immigration legislation in the news.

“We have been swamped this semester,” Dobie said.

Murillo said when he began the citizenship class did not have the understanding of the US that he has now.

“I didn’t know anything about the government, the judicial branch or the constitution,” Murillo said

But the teachers use card to help focus on the 100 questions while Dobie is teaching helps quite a bit, Murillo said.

“When you go home you have learned something,” Murillo said.