The 73-year-old federal retiree for the past two years has spent some of her afternoons and evenings teaching civics and language to immigrants seeking U.S. citizenship.
A near-lifelong Arlingtonian, the woman has seen those immigrants laboring over the lessons, usually before or after a work shift. She noticed some were coming to class long after they seemed prepared for the citizenship exam. She didn’t ask why, but she wondered whether one reason for the delay was because they could not afford the $725 application fee.
“I didn’t think it was right that their ability to get citizenship should depend on getting money to apply,” said the woman, who described herself as “distraught” by what she sees as the demonization of immigrants in national politics, including calls to block certain visa-holders, ban people from certain countries and create a society less welcoming to outsiders than it had been before.
“I want our immigrant community to know people here support them,” she said.
The woman said her charitable contributions usually range from $50 to $100. But this time, she dug deeper into her household budget and came up with $7,000, enough money for Arlington to set up a scholarship fund to help pay the cost of applying for citizenship.
“They’re from all over the world, and they’re so supportive of each other,” the donor, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she does not want charities soliciting her, said of her students.
“In one of my classes, there was a physician from Iran or Iraq, but another student was barely literate,” she said. “The well-educated man was so concerned about whether the other one would pass the test that he came to me to ask I give [the other person] extra help.”
Arlington is one of the wealthiest and most expensive places to live in the Washington area, but pockets of poverty linger not far from the trendy bars and high-priced homes. The county has 51,434 foreign-born residents, of whom 29,431 are non-U.S. citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.
The County Board and other government bodies have issued statements welcoming immigrants, even as rhetoric at the White House and elsewhere has grown more hostile, and the county sponsors free citizenship classes for immigrants who are legal permanent residents.
Between 50 and 75 students from those classes take the naturalization exam in a given year, with a 99 percent pass rate, said Kurt Larrick, spokesman for the Arlington Department of Human Services. Twenty-five volunteer teachers rotate among the nine weekly classes.
In one class last week, seven adults struggled through the lesson, trying to understand the meaning behind each question, knowing that many more await.
“Do you now have, or did you ever have, a hereditary title or an order of nobility in any foreign country?” asked the teacher, Sara Santner.
The housekeepers, drivers and cooks who made up the class carefully pulled the question apart and took their time answering.
Blanca, a cafeteria worker, decided that someone who holds “a hereditary title or an order of nobility” would be a princess or queen, which she has never been.
“No,” she said firmly and with magisterial dignity. Blanca and other students asked that only their first names be used, to protect their privacy.
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services can reduce the fee to process naturalization applications for people who have low incomes, but it still costs each applicant several hundred dollars. Each scholarship created by the Arlington donor’s fund would contribute between $200 and $360 of the needed amount.
No one has applied for the funding yet, said Susan Stolpe, a human-services specialist with the county, although several immigrants have talked to her about it in the month since the scholarship fund was set up. She expects that to change as the word gets out. But unless others donate, the citizenship scholarships will end when the full $7,000 is spent.
Eligibility for the scholarship requires applicants to have completed the 20-page federal naturalization application, be ready for the naturalization interview and be able to prove Arlington residency and income.
In the bright classroom just off the garage at the Arlington Mill Community Center, the adults at last week’s class ranged in age from their 20s to their 50s. They were intently focused, paying no attention to the parade of gym-goers, game-players and kibitzers noisily passing by. Ricardo, a cook, said he intends to apply for the scholarship money.
“I like this country. I came here thinking I will be here only six months, then a year,” he said. At the prompting of his classmates, he acknowledged, “It’s 35 years now.”
Several of the students appeared ready to take the citizenship test. They were quick to help out the ones who were newer and struggling with written or oral English. Jhennifer, the youngest, had the best command of English and helped others pronounce and decipher the harder words. Karen, with her clear handwriting, set the standard for writing out sentences on the whiteboard.
Such students, the donor said, are exactly the type of people the she intended to help.
“All four of my grandparents were immigrant Jews from Russia, Austria and Poland,” she said. “I really believe that these are the same people, in the same position that my grandparents were in. I don’t want the U.S. to be inhospitable to them.”