When someone says, “If foreigners are going to live here they should learn English,” it’s not unreasonable to assume that the person speaking has never studied a foreign language, and certainly hasn’t tried to use one in another country.
It’s not as easy as monolinguals think. I have three years of high school French, a college minor in it, and I spent a summer in French-speaking Africa, yet every time I utter a word of français in Québec, the Canadian to whom I’m speaking switches straightaway to English.
I teach ESOL, and right now I’m privately tutoring a student who is illiterate even in her native language. We’re exactly the same age, but while I had the opportunity to go as far in my education as I so desired, Nala* never even had the chance to learn how to write in her own tongue.
Nala is bright, and she’s determined. She’s become a naturalized U.S. citizen, with a passport and all the rights afforded to Americans. She took the citizenship class, passed the exam, paid the fees, and was mailed her naturalization certificate.
Only it never came.
Immigration sent it to the wrong house by an error of one number in the address.
Nala asked if I could help her out by talking to immigration about this problem.
I’m fluent in English and an American by birth, yet I spent one solid hour on the phone at Nala’s house, just trying to find the right number/office/person who could help us procure a duplicate naturalization certificate.
“You’ll need to go online and make an appointment to see an immigration officer in person at your closest field office,” I was eventually instructed, after running my phone’s battery down to the single digits.
Nala and I went online, navigated the website, and found the link to click for obtaining a sit-down at our local field office.
No appointments were available for the next two weeks. “Check back tomorrow,” came the automated message.
I told Nala I’d keep trying.
After only two more days I was able to secure a 15-minute appointment. Nala and I, and a third friend to serve as an interpreter (because they’re not provided), attended the meeting on a Friday morning.
If you’ve ever been to the DMV, you will have a good mental image of our experience, except include a security walk-through with metal detector and bag check, passport/ID check, and uniformed security personnel stationed in every room.
“She’ll need to submit a form requesting a replacement certificate,” the officer told us during our appointment.
Oh, and that costs $565.00.
No typo there.
Nala was expected to pay $565.00 for the pleasure of re-applying for the certificate she already earned and paid for.
When I balked at the cost and explained again that the fault lie not with Nala but with immigration’s envelope-addresser, the officer suggested we also fill out an Application for Fee Waiver, via which we could explain our argument that no charge should be made for the replacement naturalization certificate.
These forms must be downloaded online—at the same website where I made the in-person appointment—and subsequently mailed in via the U.S. postal service.
We went home.
I got online and pulled up the two forms.
The first PDF came out seven pages long.
The second was eleven.
The minutiae of the information required on these forms staggered me. Remember, I’m fluent in the official language of U.S. immigration, yet even I could not be certain of the correct answers to some of these questions.
Nala and I are still in the process of getting these forms filled out and submitted, with some help from another volunteer at the program where I teach. He’s done this before and told me that there is a cottage industry of people who help immigrants fill out these forms.
For a fee, of course.
While you walk through life for the next few days or during the coming weeks, would you occasionally pause to ask yourself what it would be like to do the thing you’re presently doing—maybe asking for help at a customer service desk, disputing a bill with the cable company, or simply navigating the grocery store—if you didn’t speak or read the native language of the country in which you live?
In fact, give it a try. Attempt one of your daily tasks utilizing not one word of English.
Most of us have no idea what immigrants go through every single day.
So until I’ve been one, I’m going to think twice before declaring how great they have it.
*not her real name