OPINION COLUMNS

2017 in Review: Young woman overcomes obstacles to citizenship

By Racey Burden | Published Wednesday, December 27, 2017
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New Citizen

NEW CITIZEN – Ivonne Fernandez attended her naturalization ceremony in September. Her citizenship process took 15 years. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

This summer, I received a call that is pretty typical in the newsroom – someone with a story.

A lot of people who call the office with a story idea are bragging on a family member – which is fine, sometimes your family members are newsworthy – but this call was different. The woman on the line had just learned that a former student of hers had passed a citizenship test, and she was very proud. She wanted to know if I wanted to talk to the student – a woman named Ivonne Fernandez.

The naturalization process is long and intense, and becoming a citizen is a huge personal accomplishment. I wasn’t so sure it was a news story. But because we were still feeling the backlash of Trump’s travel ban and seeing anti-immigrant sentiment in the news nationwide, I decided that, if nothing else, it would be timely to take a look at someone who entered the country undocumented and now had her naturalization certificate.

I met with Ivonne twice – the first time, we talked through the general process of becoming a citizen. It’s a process that lasted 15 years for Ivonne, who was brought into the U.S. by her parents as a toddler. She wanted to be an American citizen her entire life, but she didn’t become one until she was 27. A family member, in this case her uncle, had to sponsor her just to get her a green card, which took years, and then it was another five years before she could apply for citizenship. From there it was another seven months before she was called for an interview with immigration officials. Those seven months were nerve-wracking, as Ivonne worried her application had been rejected.

“Sometimes you’re thinking, ‘What if I don’t get to do this?’ or ‘What if something comes up?'” she said. “Even though you’ve done nothing wrong.”

Ivonne eventually passed the citizenship test with a perfect score. Her naturalization ceremony was this September.

That Ivonne had waited her whole life to be a citizen – after being brought to the U.S. when she was too young to know anything else – was the lead. But the second time we met, after Ivonne’s naturalization ceremony, I heard the rest of the story.

Ivonne didn’t want to become a citizen just for her own benefit – she wanted to sponsor a green card for her mother, who had returned to Mexico long ago. She spent most of her life apart from her mother. And she wasn’t the first family member to try to bring her mother to the U.S. That was her brother, Valente, who died in March, who was filing the paperwork to sponsor their mother before his death.

Ivonne was very close to Valente, and she said her naturalization ceremony didn’t feel quite complete without him there.

“It was a happy time for me, but also sad because he was missing,” Ivonne said. “But I know he wanted to be there. My friend said, ‘I know he was watching over you.'”

All together, it was one of my favorite features this year – the story of a young woman overcoming obstacles, both bureaucratic and personal, to fulfill a dream for herself and her family. I admire Ivonne’s persistence and perseverance so much, and I’m sure her friend was right – her brother would be proud of her, and he’s surely still watching over Ivonne.

Racey Burden is a Messenger reporter.

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