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A not-so-natural process: becoming a U.S. citizen

Sun glistened through the windows of Concordia College’s Centrum on April 4, adding brightness to an already joyous occasion. More than 216 New Americans were about to realize their long-held dreams—to become U.S. citizens.

According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, the U.S.A. naturalizes 680,000 new U.S citizens each year. These new citizens then enjoy the same rights as every other American, such as voting and serving on juries.

Few people know how arduous the task is for those seeking citizenship. It’s a six-step process: I-94 form, green card, fingerprinting, test preparation, the test itself, and finally, the naturalization ceremony. There are no shortcuts to this system and it will take an applicant around six years of work and waiting to accomplish. Just ask New American citizen Gat-kier Machar.

“An unnerving waiting period”

Machar became a U.S. citizen in 2006, six years after arriving from a refugee camp in Kahuma, Kenya.

“If you don’t understand the process you will be frustrated,” Machar said. “If you don’t read the instructions well, you will be wasting your money.”

His process began with the I-94, a form meant to keep track of the arrival and departure of those considered aliens of the United States.

“The I-94 is temporary status,” Machar said. “You then have nine or so months to apply for what they call a green card, which gives you permanent status to live here as long as you want.”

The I-94 is no longer used and was replaced by a similar system called the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA), which serves the same purpose as the I-94 did.

Obtaining the green card is the most time consuming of the steps in the naturalization process. After 10 months’ time, when you’re ESTA has expired, if one has chosen to apply for their green card, it takes two to three months for the government to process the green card application. With the application, one must provide an array of personal information, including name, date of birth, and specific information regarding the USCIS district one is applying from.

The two-to-three month process can be an unnerving waiting period, and for some it is a process that seems to never have an ending.

Marko Rout is a friend of Machar’s from his time associated with a group formerly known as “unaccompanied minors,” according to Machar. The group is more commonly known as “The Lost Boys of the Sudan,” more than 20,000 boys who were removed from their homes and families during the Sudanese Civil War, which begin in 1983 and lasted 22 years. Marko currently lives in Grand Forks, N.D., where he has been working on gaining his green card since 2011. Along with the application, there are 50 questions an applicant must answer and send in with the request. Marko’s past has led to some difficulties in the process.


“Because I was forced into being a child soldier during the war, they think I am a part of a government organization back in South Sudan,” Rout said. “I call every three months to check in, and am sent a letter back saying ‘inadmissible.’”

Rout is dealing with a particularly difficult factor in the naturalization process, getting ahold of government workers for clarification. Gat-kier Machar said this has been an issue with immigration since his naturalization process.

“A human being with a little brain, and a little heart would give him an answer,” said Machar of the unresponsiveness in Rout’s application process. “If you call, you’ll be on the phone with them and you know what they’ll tell you? ‘Check online.’”

Rout has taken a different approach for help in clarifying unclear information regarding his green card forms. He has been working with several University of North Dakota law students as well as with the Swanson Law Firm out of Grand Forks. Both are examples of outside resources available to those in the process of naturalization.

Next: Getting fingerprinted

After a successful green card application, there is a five-year waiting period until someone is qualified to apply for a U.S citizenship. The next step after passing the five-year window is to get your fingerprints taken by the government. Again, the common theme of waiting arises and yet again the applicant is asked to wait six months until they receive the print results.

For an immigrant in a brand new country, lengthy waiting periods can be filled with instability. Nepali refugee Ram Adhikari lived in four different states during his citizenship application period. The tricky part for someone in Ram’s shoes comes in monitoring all this travel for the U.S government.

“You have to provide them with proof of places where you lived,” Adhikari said. “Exact time, exact date. When you moved in and when you moved out.”

To further complicate Adhikari’s process, the government requires a specific travel log of anytime you leave the country. Ram had relatives in Canada during his first five years in the U.S, and he visited them many times. Each trip would consist of a detailed travel log as well as some form of proof he actually went where he said. He then needed to send all this to the USCIS each time he returned into the U.S.

“One time they sent my application back to me saying that they needed more proof [about one specific trip to Canada], Adhikari said. “Finally I found my plane ticket and we sorted it out.”

Preparing for the big test

After submitting the fingerprints, the citizen-in-training is given a booklet with 200 questions and a DVD. These are the study materials one needs to prepare for the citizenship test, which is the final task in the process of becoming new U.S citizens. The four-to-six month waiting period associated with the fingerprint process is allocated as study time.


Many refugees, like Ram Adhikari, arrive and remain alone for quite some time in America. Keeping their heads above water, let alone studying for an exam they are given only two shots at, adds heat to a pot of water ready to boil.

“The application for the exam costs you $680 dollars,” Adhikari said. “If you fail a portion of the test, you can retake that portion in four to five months. If you fail again, you have to start the whole process over.”

By the whole process, this means reverting back to fingerprinting, adding at least a year’s time to a process someone has already put close to six years of work into.

Even though a refugee may feel alone in this endeavor, there is help out there. Ram received help from the IRC, or International Rescue Committee, when he arrived in California. The IRC is similar Lutheran Social Services here in Fargo, as they both offer specific assistance with refugees and immigrants who are having difficulty adjusting to their new country.

Mock citizenship examinations are available online from the USCIS website, but an even more comprehensive way to prepare for the exam is to take the citizenship classes offered across the country. In Fargo, Agassiz Adult learning and Lutheran Social Services offer weekly sessions for free to those who are working on gaining their citizenship.

Nancy Halilovic helps teach the classes at Agassiz, and has done so for 15 years. Originally a middle school, its hallways are now adorned with the flags of hundreds of different countries. Halilovic is greeted by bright, unfamiliar faces of many different races of people. Men and women from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa to name a few, sit in a horseshoe shaped alignment of tables in the center of the room.


Each student is given a yellow handbook titled “Citizenship Information.” In it are 61 pages of material, including pronunciation guidance for reading questions, sentences to practice for the writing portion, the structure of the government, and even an exact copy of the Naturalization form, which itself takes up 21 pages.

The class meets every Tuesday and Thursday from noon to 2:30 p.m. During this time Halilovic and the class will go through, for example, over 40 different dictation sentences ranging from “citizens can vote,” to “Lincoln was the President during the Civil War.” Halilovic may also read aloud questions for the class to answer, just as they would have to do in the question and answer portion of their citizenship examination.

“What are the first three words of the U.S Constitution?” she asks.

“We the people!” The class answers as a resounding whole.

The Test: Truly random questions

The test itself is a maximum of 20 questions, and is completed one-on-one with an immigration officer. There are three different kinds of questions one may see on the exam: writing, question/answer and dictation, where the applicant is asked to read a sentence aloud.


Topics for the three categories have a wide range. American government, history, rights and responsibilities, even holidays and national symbols may come up on the test. Even as a U.S. born citizen, I found myself humbled by some of the questions.

Of Adhikari’s exam questions, two of them were about George Washington.

“I was asked who the first president of the United States was,” Adhikari said. “And I was asked which President was on the dollar bill.”

Adhikari then gestured for me to answer.

“Washington,” I said.

He smiled a cheesy smile and nodded.

Gat-kier Machar was posed a much trickier question:

“Who said this quote, ‘Give me liberty or give me death?’”

Again, my interviewee posed this as a question for me. I was completely blanked. So I guessed George Washington.

Machar smiled and rolled his head back laughing.

“The answer is Patrick Henry,” said Machar, holding back his giggling.


“Active and productive citizens of the United States”

At this point in the citizenship journey, not including the time it takes to get a green card, someone who has passed the exam is looking at over six years of work towards achieving this goal. But after a passing exam, there is a massive sigh of relief, as only the excitement and sense of accomplishment that goes along with a naturalization ceremony remains.

According to the U.S District Court website, each district schedules three ceremonies a month at different venues, and are led by justices of each district.

The current Chief U.S. District Judge for the District of Minnesota is Concordia College graduate John Tunheim, who is particularly fond of participating in naturalization ceremonies.

“I enjoy them,” Tunheim said. “I usually do seven or eight a year, and in total, I have done around 150 ceremonies.”

Even though the majority of the ceremonies Tunheim has led came while he was a district judge, he has continued to partake in them since beginning his seven-year term as Chief District Judge last July.

Tunheim made the pilgrimage to Concordia’s most recent naturalization ceremony in April, where he led the ceremony in the Centrum.

After an opening statement from Concordia’s President William Craft, Tunheim addressed a full house of New Americans, their families and other patrons interested in the ceremony.


“Every day there are ceremonies just like this, so you all will only hold the distinction of newest American citizens for about ten minutes,” Tunheim said. “Do not forget where you came from, but you have an obligation to this country now to be active and productive citizens of the United States of America.”

After Tunheim finished his opening remarks, the 216 soon-to-be citizens were asked to stand as their names and country of birth were read aloud, to the raucous applause of the entire chamber.

The room stirred with excitement as each name and country was announced.

Thirty-three different countries were represented at the ceremony, with India and Iraq receiving perhaps the loudest of ovations from the crowd.

After the men and women were recognized, those pledging for citizenship were asked to repeat after Judge Tunheim. When taking the oath, one must pledge to renounce allegiance to any nations of previous citizenship, declare to support and defend the U.S. Constitution, and agree to bear arms on behalf of the United States.

There was a collective sigh of achievement once the oath was completed.

A brief video message from President Barack Obama followed the oath, accompanied by videos of other naturalization ceremonies from the past. Obama welcomed the new citizens, and spoke briefly on the opportunities and responsibilities that comes with being a U.S citizen.

As the ceremony approached its climax, the newest U.S citizens were asked to take out the small American flags they had all been given upon entering the Centrum. The chamber was illuminated by the flapping and waving of 216 different flags of stars and stripes.

The ceremony culminated with the entire chamber joining together in The Pledge of Allegiance. Upon finishing, the new citizens embraced their family and friends in a state of jubilation for what they had just accomplished.

“There is a lot of emotion, even for people who haven’t had recent difficulties that have led them to become U.S citizens,” Tunheim said. “Some have lived here for 30 to 40 years and it’s still emotional for them.”

Machar would agree.

“Our journey was pretty rough for us,” Machar said, remembering his feelings after his naturalization. “A lot of us shed tears.”

“There were people from 46 different countries at my ceremony,” Adhikari said. “That’s 46 different countries which means 46 different stories from each of them.”

Powerful emotions reign supreme after completing such a toiling process for Adhikari, Machar and other refugees from the past and present. It is a process worth the frustration and hours of waiting to become weaved into the tapestry of a country founded by immigrants and made for opportunity. It is a chance to leave behind what for many, like Machar, was pain and sorrow, and start fresh.


This piece was completed for the Investigating and Narrating the News course where all students reported  on refugee issues and stories in Fargo-Moorhead.

One Comment

  1. […] A not-so-natural process: becoming a U.S. citizen – Marko currently lives in Grand Forks, N.D., where he has been working … Each student is given a yellow handbook titled “Citizenship Information.” In it are 61 pages of material, including pronunciation guidance for reading questions, sentences … […]

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