The United States has long been regarded as the land of opportunity. Over the centuries
of the country’s history, millions have immigrated to the US in search of opportunities, prosperity
and freedom. Immigration is a continuous issue in the US political system, with heated debates
surrounding the topic from all angles. For many immigrants, obtaining US citizenship is the
ultimate goal -the light at the end of the tunnel.
Though the truth of these values are heavily contested by those within the country, a
look from the outside in shows that the mere chance of a better life is often worth enough to put
everything on the line.
But what does it mean to arrive in the US?
“In the United States there are many opportunities that I never would have had in
Mexico,” said Carmen Sanchez Morales
For Carmen, a Mexican-born immigrant, citizenship had been a dream of hers ever since
she arrived in the US.
“I wanted to be part of the US, truly,” Carmen said, “to belong here, and to be able to
She never thought she would become a citizen, especially with increasing political
pressure resulting in even deeper complications of the system.
Carmen has spent the last 30 years of her life in the United States, working, making
connections and contributing to her community by paying taxes. Despite three decades of this,
Carmen was only granted her citizenship in 2022.
Carmen originally came to the United States on vacation. At the time, she worked in law
enforcement and was given a month of vacation, which she planned to spend with a friend in
the southern US.
Upon arriving in the US with a Mexican passport and an up-to-date 6 month visa,
Carmen fell in love with the country. She knew then that she would make the United States her
Many in Carmen’s position make the dangerous choice to overstay their visa, putting
them in danger of detention and even outright deportation if caught by US Immigration services.
Carmen, however, had an ace in the hole. Her brother’s close friend was a seasoned
attorney. With his expertise and influence, Carmen was able to continually extend her visa,
allowing her to stay in the US safely. For most, this is not reality. Carmen humbly describes how
without help, she would have become one of millions living and working in the US with an
expired visa, taking a daily risk.
During this time, Carmen lived in Chicago for six years, working in factories, nurseries
and restaurants. Soon, she set her sights on a new opportunity: Michigan. Carmen arrived in
Michigan and continued to work while ensuring that her visa could once again be extended.
Her attorney warned her that this plan could only continue for so long. Carmen needed
to take the first step towards citizenship: permanent residency.
US permanent residency status -commonly known as the green card- is documentation
that allows a person to permanently reside in the US, as well as exit and return to the country at
Again, Carmen’s attorney helped her through the process, but this time was met with
some difficulty. In 1992, her first application for permanent residency was denied, ruling that she
had no legitimate reason to be in the country.
What followed was the common “complicated back and forth” that eats away at the time,
money and will of many applicants.
In 1999, Carmen was granted lawful permanent residency. She could safely stay in the
US, and most importantly, return to Mexico to see her family.
But in order to become a citizen, Carmen would have to go through the daunting process
of naturalization. This process begins with a rigid list of eligibility criteria, such as being a lawful
permanent resident for at least five years, a clean criminal record and many other small, often
For many -even those who meet the requirements- the process is too long and too
expensive to move forward with, leaving citizenship as a mere dream. In some cases, it can
take two years or more from time of filing, and legal fees can reach as much as $10,000.
Due to this, many who are on paper eligible for citizenship choose to remain as lawful
But this is not always the case. Carmen found an opportunity in Latin Americans United
for Progress’ citizenship program, which helps participants through the naturalization process.
In partnership with Lighthouse Immigrant Advocates, LAUP is able to help individuals
overcome common barriers on the journey to citizenship.
In the program, Carmen stood out in the class, actively participating and making it clear
she was very serious about obtaining her citizenship.
“LAUP gives many opportunities to those who think they cannot move forward,” Carmen
In the class, Carmen prepared for the civics exam and interview that serve as the last
test before American citizenship can be granted.
Carmen’s attorney had finished her paperwork and advised her to continue studying until
she met the age requirement to take the exam in her native language of Spanish. Once again,
Carmen was put in a lucky position, as she was merely a year away from qualifying.
“Since I was a girl, I’ve been a slow learner,” Carmen described, “I could never have
taken and passed the exam in English. I can understand it, but speaking is difficult, especially
under such pressure.”
Had Carmen not been at the correct age, she would not have been able to become a
citizen, despite being qualified in every other aspect.
Since this is a relatively rare situation, the LAUP Citizenship Program uses a primarily
English curriculum, teaching students the material in English for preparation and Spanish for
In late November of 2022, Carmen finally received her citizenship. She was now an
American and able to benefit from every right bestowed upon citizens. To her, the most
important was her new ability to vote.
“You can become important in this country,” Carmen said, holding her certificate of
citizenship, “this is something that I am very proud of.”
With her journey completed, Carmen returned to LAUP to thank the staff for the help and
“It was a beneficial class and experience,” Carmen said, “I learned a lot, especially my
Today, Carmen volunteers weekly during LAUP’s Citizenship Program, helping students
study and prepare for what lies ahead. Between her experience in the program and the
citizenship process, she is a valuable member of the team.
“It’s very kind that you help others,” Carmen said, “It was a beautiful experience and a
very big help. Now I will get to repay the kindness.”