New American citizens discuss how moving to the U.S. has impacted their lives

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Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation

By Natalie Jacobsen and Whitney Kenerly

Each July 4, people of many nationalities gather on the steps of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello to pledge their allegiance to the United States. After undergoing a lengthy process to become a U.S. citizen, the ceremony is the last step in each person’s journey. And everyone has his or her own story to tell: whether they chose to come here for religious freedom or the opportunity for better lives for themselves and their families. In the following pages, you’ll meet three individuals who all call Charlottesville home. And you’ll also learn how their lives have changed since becoming Americans.

Gabriel Montes de Oca’s family emigrated to the United States in 1993 to seek better opportunities and employment. Montes de Oca’s son, who was born in Charlottesville, just graduated high school and is thinking about going to college. Photo by Eze Amos 

Gabriel Montes de Oca

Country of origin: Mexico

Years in the United States: 25

American citizen since: 2016

His daughter was barely walking when Gabriel Montes de Oca and his family emigrated to the United States from Mexico. It was 1993, and many Mexican families had made the decision to move north, seeking opportunities and employment.

“We first arrived in Texas, and I found some work, but we moved to Washington, D.C., when I found a better job,” says Montes de Oca. He works in construction, and has moved around the mid-Atlantic region with his company. “It’s a very large company, and is very [reliable] and has given me a very good way of life for my family,” he says.

They wanted to leave Mexico in the early ’90s “because Mexico had no opportunities to grow for us. The political guys, they are all corrupt. There was no way to move up and make a life,” he says. “My daughter was so young. We needed a new place that cared about [our well-being].” They believed they could find the care, resources and a job to make a living in the United States.

While living in Washington, Montes de Oca often saw pictures of and read stories about Charlottesville in the newspaper. Eventually, he had an opportunity with his company to move his family here. Now, Montes de Oca has advanced in his career and he makes his own schedule and picks the projects he wants to work on.

Montes de Oca was naturalized on July 4, 2016, at Monticello. In mid-June of this year, his son, who was born in Charlottesville, graduated from Charlottesville High School.

“My son is now starting to think about going to college,” he says. His daughter is working and making her own life in the city, and both children have only known life in the United States.

“I visit Mexico many times, maybe twice a year. Yes, I miss [many aspects] of Mexico, but I live here now,” says Montes de Oca. “My family doesn’t know any other life; they don’t know life in Mexico.”

If you were trying to leave Mexico today, would you still choose the United States?

I think it’s too late for many people, especially in Mexico, to come to America. Most people now are coming from Central America, because they don’t have anything after storms or government corruption. Few people from Mexico are crossing the borders. There are too many laws and so many changes on coming to America now, I think it is too difficult. I wouldn’t want to try to come here illegally. It is too dangerous.

Would you change anything about the United States?

I cannot think of anything. Every country goes up and down. You give it time, and things will change. Some things get better, sometimes no. But it is okay in time.

Are you proud to be an American?

Yes, I am happy. This country gave me everything. I do the best that I can. I believe my family is happier than many of those who do not have what we have here.

After coming to America 27 years ago to work as a camp counselor, Judith Claire Christian, originally from the United Kingdom, became a U.S. citizen two years ago in order to vote in the November 2016 election. She says she hopes the decision encourages her children to vote in future elections. Photo by Eze Amos.

Judith Claire Christian

Country of origin: United Kingdom

Years in the United States: 27

American citizen since: 2016

Until 2016, Judith Claire Christian had never voted. The busy mother of three and nurse practitioner had lived in the United States for more than 20 years, and during that time her status as a resident alien from the United Kingdom had allowed her to finish school and work. But it was the 2016 election that compelled her to take the final step needed to participate in the most important civic right of every American—the right to vote.

Christian grew up on a farm in a small village in the United Kingdom, and initially came to the United States right after high school to work as a camp counselor in Maine through a foreign exchange program. She expected America to be bigger, louder and brighter than any other place she’d been, and thought that its residents would “all be middle-age men who wore plaid pants and played golf.” Instead, she was taken aback by the scenery in Maine and all its large trees. She met an American at camp, whom she eventually married and divorced. She stayed in the United States to finish school at UVA.

In 2016, Christian married her second husband, an Englishman she met while a student at UVA, and found herself discussing politics more and more with her family at the dinner table. She was aware of the impact of the upcoming election on the community, and on the people she treated at the Orange County Free Clinic, many of whom did not have health insurance. Two years after her husband became a citizen, she was inspired to do the same.

After living in the U.S. for so long, what made you decide to become a citizen in 2016?

My desire to become a citizen was absolutely driven by the need to vote in [the 2016] general election. Getting that was really emotional. I walked directly from the Monticello ceremony to register to vote and started crying. I think it felt like the final piece of really being included in this country and that was really powerful.

If you could do it all over again, do you think you would still choose to stay in America and become a citizen?

I would definitely do it all over again in terms of coming and staying initially. For all the trials and tribulations of getting to this point, I have a wonderful life and I wouldn’t do anything different. I’m proud of the life I’ve been able to build here and what America has afforded me to be able to do, especially in terms of giving back through my work at the free clinic.

Voting for the first time is a powerful memory. I hope that it was memorable for my children, too, and that it encourages them to vote. If I felt that it would have made a stronger impact on my children to have voted earlier, I would have become a citizen earlier.

What do you want people to know about your experience becoming a citizen?

I will always remember when I was at the ceremony being impressed by the diversity of people who were there. In that current media environment immigrants were not presented as a positive. But at the ceremony, I was feeling that we all brought so much to a country that was founded on immigrants, and that we had all come from different walks and creeds—all of that makes America what it is, and that’s difficult to describe. It’s beautiful.

Laique Khan (center), originally from Pakistan, took the naturalization oath on July 4, 2017. Khan, from the fourth-largest city in the world, Karachi, says he appreciates how respectful Americans are. Courtesy of Thomas Jefferson Foundation.

Laique Khan

Country of origin: Pakistan

Years in the United States: 8

American citizen since: 2017

Laique Khan came to the United States from Pakistan eight years ago to join his family. Many of his in-laws, brothers and sisters lived in Charlottesville, so he felt he had a good idea of what it would be like to live in America. As a devout Muslim, he was happy to find that he was able to continue practicing his religion while living and working here, despite concerns in his community regarding the political rhetoric around Islam.

Respect and equality are of critical importance to Khan, and one of the reasons he is happy to be an American. He wanted to live somewhere where he could have a chance to grow in a career, and where his daughter would have the most opportunities.

Khan, who works at GMP Pharmaceuticals, became a United States citizen on July 4, 2017. Joining him in becoming a citizen at that ceremony was his daughter who recently graduated from UVA with a degree in biology. She is now studying for the MCAT exam, and hopes to go to medical school.

What has it been like to live here in the United States?

Where I’m from, Karachi, which is the fourth-largest city in the world, I hate to see the VIP culture and movement with people there. The rich and armies can go around and do whatever. Here, everybody seems to be respectful. Everybody obeys traffic laws. You know, my dream was for my daughter to go to a good university and graduate, and that is what has happened. That is good.

What was the biggest challenge you faced after you moved to the United States?

Initially, we were living with my brother-in-law’s family. I was trying to find a job, and we lived there for two years. I applied to a lot of places, and I was dejected because I had been a professional for many years in Pakistan. Then my family went through UVA because everybody said it was an equal opportunity employer. I admire UVA people. The hiring person there—they are so, so nice. Anytime I need a job they are so helpful. I respect them a lot.

How are you feeling after the Supreme Court recently upheld President Trump’s executive order commonly referred to as the Muslim ban?

My country is not yet under that category—it’s not one of the countries listed. I always thought that the U.S. was for the freedom of religion, but I’m not concerned about the political scenario. There is not such a big problem here. I’m still doing my prayers and going to my mosque. My CEO allows me to go on my Friday prayer. In three years I’ve never missed my Friday prayer. That’s a really good thing. That’s why I respect the people here.

Do you think it would be more difficult for you to try to become a citizen now?

It’s now a very long process to become a citizen when you’re my nationality. Everything you have to face…we have to face everything. This seems to be quite hard. A lot of the people in the Muslim community are talking about that.


Civics engagement

For the United States naturalization test, a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer administers an oral test to each applicant. Out of 100 possible history and government questions, the officer will choose 10 to ask each person. An applicant must answer six of out 10 questions correctly to pass the civics portion of the test.

How would you do on a test about American government? See for yourself with these 10 sample questions.

Questions

1. What is the supreme law of the land?

2. What is one right or freedom from the First Amendment?

3. How many amendments does the Constitution have?

4. What are two rights in the Declaration of Independence?

5. The House of Representatives has how many voting members?

6. If both the president and the vice president can no longer serve, who becomes president?

7. Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?

8. Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the states. What is one power of the states?

9. Name one U.S. territory.

10. Why does the American flag have 13 stripes?

Answers

1. The Constitution

2. Speech, religion, assembly, press and petition the government

3. 27

4. Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

5. 435

6. The speaker of the house

7. To print money, to declare war, to create an army and to make treaties

8. Provide schooling and education, provide protection (police), provide safety (fire departments), give a driver’s license and approve zoning and land use

9. Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Northern Mariana Islands and Guam

10. Because there were 13 original colonies.

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