English is an Unfair Barrier to Citizenship for Resettled Bhutanese

Learn about the struggles that Bhutanese people face in attempting to achieve United States citizenship

By Ganesh Gurung     

The English language is a complex wall mortared with reading, writing, and speaking that many of the resettled Bhutanese adults and seniors in our community can neither climb nor destroy.

It is good for refugees to be equipped with a basic knowledge of the history, culture, and language of the country or place where they live or intend to live. It is true that this type of deep understanding will make us responsible and loyal citizens. But what if the people are illiterate? What about those who have never been to school and who can’t read and write in English?

This is exactly the problem facing many of the resettled Bhutanese when they try to take the naturalization test, an exam that must be passed prior to becoming a naturalized American citizen. As a result, many Bhutanese adults and seniors are not able to pass.

“I have learned [the questions] by heart and can answer all the questions [on] the naturalization test, but I [failed] because I could not pass the general speaking and writing,” said Sabitra Dhital, 61, a Bhutanese member from Worcester, MA. “So I am bound to re-apply.”

Although there are plenty of agencies who run English and citizenship test preparation classes to help such immigrants and refugees, they seem to be of little help, particularly for older refugees. Learning the English language and passing the naturalization test is a great challenge for them — almost like clearing a gigantic, rocky mountain with only a hammer.

Refugees’ efforts to pass the naturalization test are quite fascinating: some try to write English words and short sentences in the Nepali alphabet and then learn the sounds by heart in order to pass, but none have used this method successfully. Furthermore, some adults have never been to school and don’t even know how to read and write in their native language, Nepali. Although they can learn sentences by heart and answer all the questions, they don’t know how to read and write in English.

This is a major problem. Many adults and seniors can say their names and home addresses but cannot write them on the required form. Who will recognize their tireless efforts to pass the naturalization test and address the fact that they will never succeed as long as the authorities require them to understand and speak English in addition to just answering all the questions correctly?

Even after attending ESL classes for more than a year, some refugees are unable to pass this test.

“I practiced learning and understanding English but still I am unable to pass the citizenship test because I have never been to school and I cannot write the sentences and speak fluently,” said Chandra Thapa, 60, a Bhutanese member from Worcester, MA.

There are plenty of resettled Bhutanese adults who have failed the citizenship test and are very worried now. This frustrating situation has made their lives miserable.

“Our lives have always been troubled one way or the other; now passing a naturalization test — for people like us, who have never been to school our entire lives — has become another nightmare,” said another member of Worcester’s Bhutanese community, Sabitra Dhital, 41.

Others worry that failing the test could one endanger their legal status in the country

“I feared so much, thinking that, ‘what if I am unable to acquire citizenship status even after the tenth year of my stay in the USA?’” said Deu Dhital 61, a member of the Bhutanese community in Worcester. “I hear a lot of refugees and immigrants are being deported. I fear that, one day, I will be the one [they deport] for not having citizenship.”

It is true that we cannot ignore the cause of this problem. But we also cannot blame these innocent resettled Bhutanese adults for not having had the opportunity to attend school at an early age. It is time to consider their ability to read and write and the effort they make to pass the citizenship test. The government agencies responsible for the naturalization testing procedure must not stick only to the rules, but also fairly evaluate the English reading and speaking abilities of these people and come up with ways to make it easier for them to pass the test and feel that their tireless efforts are being appreciated.

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