Dara Davalos kept hearing on television that, under the new president’s hardline stance on immigration, green card-holders like herself would be more secure if they became full U.S. citizens.
While her husband and children are citizens, Davalos isn’t and Donald Trump’s words worried her.
“He’s mentioned a lot of things about deportation, especially for Mexicans,” she said.
Davalos is among scores of local residents signing up for Merced Adult School’s U.S. citizenship classes, nearly doubling the demand seen the previous year.
The 30-year-old woman began attending classes twice a week at Campus Park Elementary in Livingston. The class, offered by Merced Adult School, helps people prepare for the citizenship test. It’s free, and childcare is offered for those who need it.
In the 2015-16 school year, 59 people were enrolled, said Steve Hobbs, the adult school principal. This year, more than 100 students are enrolled, and that number is expected to increase.
Classes were initially offered in Merced and Livingston. This year, a class at Buhach Colony High School was added and immediately became popular.
“Our job is to help support the community, and this is a need in the community,” Hobbs said.
Shawn Costa, an evening program manager for the adult school, said interest in the classes spiked after the November election. “Things have calmed. It’s not as tense as it was two months ago,” she said. “But it’s bringing people out of the woodwork for sure.”
To be eligible to apply for citizenship, one must have residency status, or a “green card,” for five years.
“If you’re undocumented, you can’t even try to get your citizenship,” Costa said. “Generally, for people who have already started the process, it costs anywhere from $800-$1,000 in government fees.”
For Davalos, this is the first step in the citizenship process. She’s also learning English through a Rosetta Stone class offered at Selma Herndon Elementary.
“I’m very interested in bettering myself and getting a better job,” she said, speaking through a translator.
“She’s very dedicated,” said Norman Martin, who teaches the class.
So are all of Martin’s other students, he said.
“I respect the dedication of the students,” he said. “Many have jobs and families, but they are making the time to attend classes and are putting forth the effort to become citizens of the United States.”
Twice weekly, about a dozen students attend Martin’s class. The students work in pairs on laptops, working on comprehension of simple commands in English. They also quiz each other on test questions about United States history and government.
“We don’t get into politics here,” Martin said. “But you can see a difference.”
Many students hope to attain citizenship for the same reasons: a sense of security and to help their children.
“There’s so much propaganda and so many untruths spread that it’s scared them,” Costa said. “The rumors have got them nervous.”
David Martinez, 56, said he wants to be able to help his younger sons through the process.
Martinez, a father of eight, first came to the U.S. in the 1980s, where his two oldest sons were born. He returned to Michoacán, Mexico, where his younger children were born. He and his family returned to the U.S. a few years ago, seeking better employment opportunities.
“It’s safer to be a part of the process and to become involved politically,” he said.
Cecilia Garza Leyva, a mother of three daughters, has an appointment for her citizenship interview next month. She feels ready for the test.
It’s so important to her that she put her job on hold so she could attend the citizenship classes and study for the test at home.
“This is very important to me because I’m finally going to be part of this country,” she said.
Rosa Areyan, 52, said even without citizenship, she feels the U.S. is her country. “The reality is, we’re part of the country now,” she said. “We have grandkids here. Our sons and daughters have become assimilated, and so have we.”
The students also look forward to voting and becoming more involved in the political process after attaining citizenship.
Martin says he encourages his students to vote and join service clubs once they become citizens.
And, for those interested in becoming citizens, Martin encourages them to take the leap.
“We have all levels here,” he said. “Just getting started is the hardest part. I encourage people to come try it.”
Merced Adult School also offers classes for those learning English as a second language and GED preparation classes in Spanish. For more information on locations and how to enroll, call 209-325-2800. Merced Adult School does not require any identification documents to enroll.
Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477