Candida Almonte, who became a U.S. citizen on December 6, 2019, told us her story with the help of Sonia Santana, an immigration program coordinator at Dominicanos USA, a New Americans Campaign partner, who translated the discussion from Spanish.
Candida Almonte: I’ve lived in the United States for 18 years. I am from the Dominican Republic originally. I was married there and had four children. My husband’s mother petitioned for him to come to the United States, so he came first. I was living alone in the D.R. with my children and feeling sad that my husband had to go back and forth to visit us. He was a permanent resident and eventually he petitioned for me. I was happy when I came here because we could all live together again. After a few months, I found a job taking care of children in a daycare. Then I took a course to be a home attendant and that’s what I am doing now.
Sonia Santana: I first met Candida after two of our workers from Dominicanos USA (DUSA) were doing outreach to people interested in applying for U.S. citizenship. Our outreach worker met Candida’s daughter and took her information. When we called her to schedule an appointment, she told us that her mother was interested too. I learned that Candida actually qualified to take the citizenship test in Spanish. I encouraged her and her daughter to come to a citizenship event that we were holding at a local high school, and together we completed their citizenship application that day.
Candida: It was my daughter who motivated and pushed me. Previously, I had gone to a citizenship drive but, at that time, I didn’t qualify to take the test in Spanish, and I didn’t feel comfortable enough to take it in English. So I decided to let it go. But a number of years later, when my daughter told me that Dominicanos USA was going to have a citizenship drive, I felt motivated to go. Sonia also called me and explained what was needed for the application. It was then that I decided, yes, I want to become a U.S. citizen. I had been living in this country for a long time. I wanted to feel that I belong. I wanted to vote, and I wanted to have all the benefits that a U.S. citizen has.
Sonia: To take the citizenship test in Spanish depends on both the length of residence, and your age. You qualify if you have 15 years as a resident and you are at least 55 years old, or if you have 20 years as a resident and you are at least 50 years old. When Candida originally inquired, she had not been a permanent resident for long enough to take the test in Spanish, so she decided to wait.
Candida: When I met you, Sonia, from the very beginning you inspired my confidence. When you called to remind me about my appointment, I felt very good about that and I trusted you. You held up your side of the commitment. Then when I came to the office, you gave me materials and civic cards in Spanish. It’s no exaggeration to say that you made me feel very good and hopeful.
Sonia: I was also impressed with you! You came to the civic classes even though the classes were in English and it was difficult for you to communicate. I remember I told you that the only teacher we had at the moment was Chinese and she teaches the class in English. And even though you would be taking the test in Spanish you came to the civics class.
Candida: To be honest, I don’t speak much English. But I understood that teacher! She was really good. I just went to the class just for a day the weekend before my appointment. Mostly, I used the civics cards to prepare. My daughter had become a U.S. citizen before me and she helped me study.
The night before I took my citizenship test, I took my civic cards with me to bed. I was a little anxious and I read them all night. I am a woman of deep faith. So I also prayed to God to ask for help. I told God I was going to take this test and I was nervous. Then I fell asleep and had a dream. In my dream I saw a green-eyed lady who gave me the interview.
My appointment was scheduled for 11 a.m. the next morning. My daughter came with me and we actually arrived at 8 a.m. One of the workers there asked, “Why did you come so early?” He said we could go to the cafeteria on the 5th floor, buy a coffee, and try to relax a little bit. I read my practice questions and around 10:30 a.m., my daughter said, let’s go back to the waiting area.
We were told to take a seat and they would call me. My daughter heard my name being called by a woman from another side of the waiting room. When I walked over and saw the woman, I recognized her! She was the same woman with green eyes from my dream. She smiled at me and asked, “How are you?” And I thought to myself, “I’ve already passed this test! Thank you, God.” It sounds like a story, but it is true. I never experienced anything like this before. I felt more relaxed. When the lady called me and smiled at me, I thought God was helping me and I passed the test.
When I went to the oath ceremony, it was a very special moment for me. The oath ceremony was in English, but I understood many things. I understood when they said my status changed. And I understood the national anthem. When we sang the national anthem, I felt very emotional.
After the ceremony finished my daughter and I were taking many photos. A USCIS officer came to tell us that it was time to go home because they were having another ceremony. And my daughter said, very nicely, “It took so many years to get here, let us all enjoy this moment to the fullest. This does not happen every day.” The officer began laughing, he was joking with us. And my daughter said, “Instead of telling us to go home, please take our picture.” And he did!
Sonia: Candida had her oath ceremony at 26 Federal Plaza. That’s where many people in New York City take their oath of citizenship. Our organization, Dominicanos USA, goes there every Friday because we do voter registration. One of our canvassers happened to be there after Candida’s ceremony and she recognized him.
Candida: I recognized that he had the DUSA logo. I said, “Oh you are from Dominicanos USA! You are the people who helped me with my application to become a citizen!” Then he helped me register to vote right there. When I saw him that day, I felt so excited. I thanked him and said, “Say hi to Sonia, she is the one who helped me make this day possible!”
Sonia: When I saw the picture back at our office, I was so happy! My colleague said, “This photo is for you. Candida said to thank you very much.” It was the end of the journey. We helped her apply for citizenship and now we’re registering her to vote. We also helped her daughter apply and her son is now applying for his citizenship.
Candida: I feel different now. I have the power to vote. I can help choose the president. I have more rights. I feel more powerful. I am happy and grateful for the work that DUSA did to help me. Now I am motivating other people to apply for citizenship. I have an ongoing campaign. I have two granddaughters who just turned 18, they are twins, I’ve been encouraging them to apply and they are in the process right now. I am motivating my son, and a friend—all of my family and friends, actually. I tell everybody not to be scared. Do not wait. Just apply.
Sonia: I am a naturalized citizen too. My father came to the United States when I was 6 years old. My older sister petitioned for him. He tried to bring me and my brothers when I was around 13 years old. However, the lawyer that was helping my dad with the process didn’t do his job. He took his money and he did not submit the I-130 application which is the application to petition relatives. When my father realized that the lawyer had lied to him, he had to raise the money again and re-submit the application. As a result, I didn’t come to the U.S. until I was 19 years old.
My brother pushed me to naturalize. He completed his application first and then he was asking me, “Why don’t you apply to be a citizen? I don’t know what you’re waiting for.” I was already working part-time at Dominicanos USA, while I was studying bilingual education at City College. I thought, I have to be an example. I was working for this organization, and I wasn’t even a citizen yet. I worked first as a canvasser and I heard about the citizenship program and how it’s helping people. I was really excited and thought I needed to help! There are many people like Candida. I feel like I’m helping my community. After I graduated, I felt like I liked the immigration field more than being a teacher to be honest.
Candida: I am happy and grateful for the work that Sonia and DUSA did to help me. Now I am motivating other people to apply for citizenship!