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Citizenship Lesson From the Top

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By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

They impressed him with their knowledge of President Bush's Cabinet and ability to give numerous examples illustrating the U.S. system of checks and balances. But it was their tough questions -- "Why can't legal immigrants have the right to vote?" and "If immigrants are so important, why are some being sent back out of the country?" -- that really got Alfonso Aguilar's attention.

Aguilar, chief of the U.S. Office of Citizenship, met with 30 teenage immigrants yesterday at Gaithersburg High School for a 90-minute civics lesson and question-and-answer session in which the students took full advantage of their right to hold their government officials accountable.

Aguilar's appearance in Gaithersburg is part of the government's push to reach out to the immigrant community and encourage its members to learn English and embrace American political culture. The effort comes as record numbers are applying for citizenship.

In response to the query regarding legal immigrants and voting, Aguilar replied, "That's a good question." He acknowledged that laws affect everyone, not just citizens, but said that if people want a voice in the process, they must make a commitment.

"It's important if you want to exercise your political rights that you be fully attached to our country," Aguilar said. "You need to take that public oath."

Zury Majano, a freshman, asked Aguilar to explain why states such as Virginia were passing laws targeting illegal immigrants.

"Isn't the right to an education a federal law?" the 14-year-old asked.

"That's a tough question," Aguilar replied. "The problem is we need immigration reform, and because we don't have immigration reform, a lot of states and communities are acting on their own."

He encouraged Zury and her fellow students to write letters to their representatives urging them to pass laws that would reform the immigration system.

Aguilar led a similar discussion earlier this year with older Vietnamese immigrants at the Long Branch Community Center in Silver Spring.

Yesterday, the vibe was different. The students were eager to share their knowledge of the U.S. political system. They debated the merits of direct and representative democracy with their guest. And they chuckled when he told them how he grew up eating beans and rice every night in Puerto Rico.

Aguilar, the son of a Costa Rican father and Italian mother, praised the students for their fearlessness in asking tough questions.

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