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Immigrants in central Iowa have a new option for U.S. citizenship classes

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Latinx Immigrants of Iowa
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Latinx Immigrants of Iowa, a Latino advocacy organization, added U.S. citizenship classes to its services. The classes take place in its recently-opened physical location.

Adult students arrived to the Latinx Immigrants of Iowa building in Des Moines late in the evening. They signed in for their class to help them prepare for, and hopefully pass, the U.S. citizenship exam. They adjusted their masks over their nose and mouths and took out their notebooks and other study materials.

Teacher Raquel Medina arranged the whiteboard in the front of the class. The desks were reorganized that day to create a circle for the students to see each other.

Latinx Immigrants of Iowa launched these classes for the first time to help Latinos in the state feel empowered.

"We know as a fact that there is a need for spaces, you know, where people can actually go into their own pace. And it is really hard," Medina said about the 100-question U.S. citizenship exam. "They need to know everything. And a lot of people, they're very limited on English. And they need to feel like, confident when doing it, you know?"

Medina teaches the class half in Spanish and half in English. Most of the students will be required to take the exam in English. And that, she said, is one of the hardest parts about the test: overcoming the language barrier.

On top of learning new phrases and words, the students must also pronounce the names of state and national leaders correctly, which is difficult because letters in Spanish make different sounds than in English.

U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services cite someone being exempt from taking the exam in English if that person is either 50 years old at the time of naturalization application and has held a green card for 20 years. There's another exception for individuals who are 55 at the time of their application and have had a green card for 15 years.

Only three meet the requirements to take the exam in Spanish. Those students work with Medina and a few Spanish language students from Grinnell College to prepare for the extensive test.

Medina emigrated from Mexico and took the U.S. citizenship exam herself. She said the simple fact that the teacher was once in their place has served as an inspiration for her students.

"They can relate to that, you know? They can say, 'oh, okay, I guess I can do that. I could be like her.' My English is not like... I have an accent. And English is not like my native language. So they can see a little bit of themselves when in class and I think that's empowering when they can relate to the other person, and it's a space where they feel good," she said.

Medina doesn't just teach the straightforward answers to the exam questions, she also discusses with her students the benefits of being a U.S. citizen.

"The benefit of being a U.S. citizen is you're part of the democracy of a country now," she said. "This is why we moved here, you know? We dream of America. We dream about this. That's why we call it the American dream. And the democracy that we see here is so appealing because in most of our countries we don't see that."

The director, Jose Alvarado, said there are currently around 50 people on the waiting list for the 12-week class. Once it gets a better understanding of people’s schedules, the organization also wants to add English-language and computer classes.