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Contesting Mythic America: Community-based Citizenship Education for Immigrants

July 12, 1999 by Administrator in July/August 1999

By Laura Y. Liu

Community-based organizations have long served immigrant groups in urban areas. They organize around labor issues, deal with domestic violence, and help immigrants negotiate the naturalization process. In many ways, community groups mediate between government and the communities they serve. Local community groups often represent the state to particular groups of immigrants, even as they work towards immigrant rights. Although these groups occupy a position between government and immigrant communities, they are often perceived to be part of government. This raises unique problems of organizing strategy for these groups, especially in terms of the potential for politicizing immigrants.

Some community-based organizations provide educational support to immigrants who are permanent residents and want to become naturalized citizens. These immigrants often turn to community groups for assistance, first through English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses, then through citizenship classes that teach the required knowledge for the naturalization exam and interviews with INS officials. Having volunteered at a community-based organization in New York City’s Chinatown, I believe these classes provide much-needed services to documented immigrants looking to better their situation through naturalization.

Community groups, however, are still heavily constrained by the specific requirements of naturalization and by the legal distinctions between documented and undocumented immigrants. This short piece considers some of these constraints in order to think about better ways to serve the immigrant population in urban areas such as New York City.

Ideal Notions of the US

In many ways, community-based organizations dealing with the naturalization process reinforce ideal notions of the United States as a “safe haven” and a “nation of immigrants” founded on universal ideals of freedom and democracy. The reproduction of these ideals comes largely

from the demands of a federal naturalization policy that requires permanent residents to know a particular version of American history. This history is devoid of any representations of oppressed and dominant groups in the US. For instance, permanent residents are asked to memorize the meanings of the colors of the US flag (red for courage, white for justice, blue for truth) and the famous words of Patrick Henry, “Give me freedom or give me death!” The emphasis rests on colonial history (the Mayflower and Pilgrims, the thirteen original colonies, etc.), touching only briefly on the Civil War and the two World Wars. No knowledge is required about US involvement in the Korean War, the Vietnam War, or any war since. In fact, the required knowledge entirely excludes almost all of twentieth century history, focusing instead on nostalgic accounts of victories.

Candidates for citizenship are required to know about the general structure of federal and state government, but not the structure of the relationship between the US and its former and present colonies. Not surprisingly, the genocide of Native Americans is not part of this “naturalization canon,” nor the legacies of slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, the Bracero Program of the 1940s, or the many exclusion acts that prevented various groups of Asians from immigrating to the US at different times. It is particularly incongruous that the Asian Exclusion Acts are not discussed in classes involving Asian permanent residents. These are some of the contradictions faced by community groups engaging in citizenship education.

Obviously, we wouldn’t want to require so much historical knowledge that the naturalization process becomes more burdensome for permanent residents than it already is. But the required information need not reinforce so heavily the idyllic notion that the US is a land of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” All of this suggests that the process of naturalization is really a nationalistic one based on a white-washed, patriotic history that must be memorized and repeated by green-card holding immigrants.

These “citizenship classes” must inevitably reproduce some degree of nationalism in conveying the information required. Therefore, community groups that conduct these classes are themselves implicated in constructing “America” and its citizens. A real challenge, then, for community-based groups working around citizenship, is to question and clearly define their own role in this process. Groups in the not-for-profit sector function like the government in filling social service gaps, and often represent the government to immigrants who use their services. It is no surprise, then, if immigrants do not make clear distinctions between not-for-profit community groups and the formal apparatus of the state. This blurring of roles makes it even more pressing that community groups context naturalization policy as they educate.

Undocumented Immigrants and New Citizens

Another potential organizing strategy for community-based organizations involves integrating the services offered to permanent residents and those offered to the undocumented (some groups already do this). Of course, structural limitations dictate the necessity of separating the two into distinct groups since they are seen differently by government. But what are the implications for community organizations that refuse to make the distinction in their organizing strategy? By adhering to the “legal” differences between them and failing to talk about the plight of the undocumented with permanent residents, community groups reinforce the categories that separate “insiders” from “outsiders.” The supposedly neutral categories of “permanent residents,” “undocumented immigrants,” and “citizens” are laden with nationalistic ideas about what it means to be a political subject and what it means to be excluded from political life. By engaging in the “education” of “new citizens,” community groups are uniquely positioned to make linkages between different groups. Documented and undocumented immigrants are not isolated groups, and many permanent residents taking citizenship classes will find these linkages to be relevant in their own lives.

These connections can also be tied into family ideologies that inform naturalization policy. For example, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) of 1994 (reintroduced in Congress in 1998 as the VAWA II, which is still pending) improves the chances for battered and undocumented immigrant women married to US citizens or permanent residents to become permanent residents. Some provisions of the law expired in January of 1998, however, requiring that some women return to their countries of origin to apply for permanent residency. A challenge for community groups is to make the connection between the naturalization policies that affect permanent residents and domestic violence policies that affect undocumented residents.

The work of community-based groups in educating and assisting immigrants through the naturalization process fills a hole left open by local and federal government and is undoubtedly invaluable to the communities of Chinese and other immigrants in urban areas. The contradictions of immigration policy, and therefore of citizenship education, suggest how difficult and necessary this work is.


Laura Y. Liu, Lyliu(at)rci(dot)rutgers(dot)edu, is a Ph.D. candidate in the Rutgers University Department of Geography.

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