I’ve always thought of myself as hardworking. Every time I do something, I try to do it the best I possibly can – including being a mother to my three beautiful children. But as a single mother living in Lima, Peru, providing food, clothes and opportunities for my kids to learn and grow was a daily challenge. No matter how hard I worked, I just couldn’t make ends meet. For so long, I wanted nothing more than a chance to give them a better life than they had in Lima.
In 2007, I finally got that chance after my mother, who was a U.S. citizen, petitioned for me to join her in the U.S. My children – who were 2, 5 and 7 years old at the time – and I made the journey from our home in Peru to Maryland. I knew it was the best thing for my children, but it was still hard to leave my hometown, especially my family and friends. Even with all the nervousness of living in what seemed like a whole new world, I remember being surprised and excited at how things started looking up for us almost immediately. Within only a few weeks, I got a job helping elderly patients at a nursing home and my kids started at a good school. I will also always remember how warmly the people in our community welcomed us. I had just left everything and everyone I knew thousands of miles away, so feeling welcome in my new community made me feel a little less alone.
Above: The author, Giannina Diaz Coello
Then my excitement turned to anxiety as reality started to set in. Despite how optimistic I was when we first arrived, we barely scraped by. My job payed minimum wage and I saw firsthand how expensive it was to live a short drive away from the nation’s capital. I hardly earned enough to pay for rent, food, clothes and transportation. In some ways, it still felt like our life in Peru. I started to question if we should have come to the United States at all.
But I reminded myself about why I came to the U.S. in the first place – to give my kids a better future. Seeing them get a good education gave me the strength to keep working hard. I was happy when I finally landed a job as a stocker at Target because it paid much better than my job at the nursing home, which made it easier to support my family. But I was also a little sad because I had to work the night shift, which meant my children and I were on different schedules. For nine years they would either come home from school while I was getting ready for work, or I would come home from work while they were getting ready for school. They were growing up and I couldn’t even watch it happen.
I knew I needed a new job so I could have more time with my children, but I also knew my options as a green card holder were limited. That’s why I started to think about applying for citizenship. I knew many immigrants like myself who were able to quality for better jobs after becoming citizens. Then, last year, when the conversation about immigrants in our political discourse began to get ugly, I decided it was time for me to do it.
Even though I knew it was the right decision to apply for citizenship, I had two big concerns. First, I knew pulling together the extra money to file the application would be difficult. I was really worried my broken English wouldn’t be enough for me to pass the interview. I didn’t know what questions they would ask during the interview and was afraid that I would get the money together for the application fee just to be rejected because I couldn’t answer the interview questions well enough. Luckily, I heard about citizenship classes being offered by a local organization called Community Ministries of Rockville and decided to sign up.
During the first class, volunteers went through the entire application process with an attorney from the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center (APALRC) named Linda Vuong. By the time the session ended, I was completely overwhelmed by the amount of information we needed to know and convinced I would not pass the citizenship test. I remember feeling so hopeless. Thankfully, Linda stayed with me after class and counseled me one-on-one.
I confessed all my fears to Linda: about the application fee, my English abilities and learning all the information for the interview. From the moment we met, she was so supportive. She promised to help me fill out my application and investigate if my income level qualified me for an application fee waiver, (It did!). Linda regularly checked up on me once my application was filed. When I passed the civics test on my first try, I called her immediately. I was so relieved and I wanted her to know that I couldn’t have done it without her words of encouragement.
Thanks to APALRC, I officially became a U.S. citizen in December 2016. Now, they’re helping me complete citizenship applications for all three of my children.
Looking back at my experience, I realize I should not have been worried about applying. If anything, I should have applied sooner! It’s incredible to think about the opportunities that are available to me now that I’m a citizen – like access to better paying jobs, the ability to vote and to travel freely to and from the United States. It’s a really uncertain time for a lot of immigrants. For me, being a citizen is a huge comfort – I know that no one can take these opportunities away from me. I feel secure knowing I can always call America my home. And I’m grateful that my children will soon be able to feel the same way too.
For more information on how to become a U.S. citizen, visit the New Americans Campaign at newamericanscampaign.org.