First Step to Citizenship? Often, Learning English

Sep 24, 2014

Under the best of circumstances, the path to U.S. citizenship for immigrants can take years.

But as WMRA’s Andrew Jenner reports, the longest journey often begins with the language barrier.

Juan Alvarez remembers his first few days in Harrisonburg:

JUAN ALVAREZ:  Muy difficultoso!

He came alone a little more than a year ago. He didn’t know a soul, nor a word of English. When he was preparing to leave Cuba, he’d felt ready; but actually being in this strange new place – that was different.

ALVAREZ: [Begins speaking in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I didn’t know my way around, I didn’t know anyone, I couldn’t talk with anyone. What my ears were hearing was a completely different language, I didn’t know what people were saying, I couldn’t talk to anyone. So I was shut up inside my house, thinking, with lots of thoughts going around in my head, and you start to feel sad, to get depressed.

Alvarez began taking English classes through a local nonprofit, Skyline Literacy.

[Sounds of English class in background]

His English teacher, Raul Jorrin, is also originally from Cuba.

RAUL JORRIN: For all the foreigners who come to this country, it’s essential to master the English language. It’s the only way they can be part of the society, of the community.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than 7,000 people in Harrisonburg and Rockingham County are not fully fluent in English. In addition to Skyline Literacy, the Career Development Academy at James Madison University and Massanutten Technical Center also offer English classes for adults. Together, the three enrolled about 1,000 students looking to improve their English last year. Sandy Rinker, assistant director of adult programs at Massanutten Technical Center, describes its approach to English instruction:

SANDY RINKER: Our instructional process is based on life skills, which to us is very important. It allows an individual to know how to go to a school and meet a teacher, or to go to the grocery store and work with cashiers, or go to the hospital. Those are everyday types of experiences that everyone has to deal with.

After more than a year here, Alvarez’s English has come a long way.

ALVAREZ: I have seven sisters and four brothers.

That’s him describing the family he left behind in Cuba, where he worked as a chemist for a mining and mineral company. After it shut down, he applied to the government for a new job but was black-balled, he says, because he had joined the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Altogether, he was without regular work for five years, during which time he decided to leave.

ALVAREZ: [Begins speaking in Spanish]

TRANSLATOR: I had written to the embassy telling them about my case, they processed me, and that process took years, until finally I was approved.

And so, Alvarez, now 48 years old, came alone to Virginia in search of new opportunity. He works at the Cargill plant in Dayton, and has applied for permanent residency status. It’s a first step toward eventually becoming an American citizen – a goal that will take him at least several more years to reach. In the meantime, day-to-day life has gotten considerably better since he first arrived.

ALVAREZ: This city is very … calm. Very good.

Two mornings a week, he’s there in English class with his textbook open in front of him, working hard to make his new life here a little bit easier.

[Sounds of English class in background]

This is Part One of a six-part weekly series on the path to citizenship for immigrants in Virginia.