Every Tuesday at 6:15 p.m., the North Miami Beach Public Library offers a free class to help people prepare for the American citizenship test.
At the head of the class stands Cuban-native teacher, Yalilys “Lily” Pérez. She came to Miami in 2006 and became a citizen on 2012.
“I know what the whole process is like, which is very difficult and a little expensive,” said Pérez in Spanish. “I went through it myself, so I know how to help them through my own experience.”
According to the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services website, applicants have to pay a $640 fee, regardless of whether it is successful. They are then charged an $85 biometric fee, which entails being fingerprinted. Finally, applicants must prepare for their citizenship test.
The USCIS offers a practice test with 100 questions, of which 10 are asked verbally, as part of the naturalization interview. Those questions must be answered in English, which is when Pérez’s expertise comes into play.
She said that a lot of people who attend the class know absolutely nothing about speaking English, much less about the U.S. Constitution.
“I can ask them something as simple as ‘do you live in your current address?’ and they don’t know how to answer,” said Pérez.
But she said she takes advantage of her Spanish-speaking skills, as it allows her to explain the questions in detail until they understand every component and then focus on teaching them in English.
“Every class gets about 20 to 25 students and most of them come back for three or four weeks,” said Pérez. “Some even come back and help the others after they pass their test.”
One of these students is Venezuelan-native María Gómez.
“I like going and helping out when I can because I remember when I was taking the classes and it was very hard for me to speak my broken English in front of everyone,” said Gómez. “Lily really helped me lose that fear of speaking English by just talking to me.”
Pérez said that because she teaches the class by herself, she gets to know the people on a more personal level.
“I know most of them personally, and this helps me teach them better because I can focus on their individual needs,” said Pérez.
Because the test is in the form of an interview, every USCIS officer asking the questions is different. Pérez brings in volunteers who can speak English well and with different accents so that no one is “thrown off” by anything the day of the test.
FIU alumni Cassandra Fernández is one of the volunteers.
“I came here once with my best friend to help her out with her test and now if Lily calls us we help when we can,” said Fernández. “She really takes the time to help everyone who comes to the class so we kind of wanted to return the favor.”
Although, according to Pérez, most of the people who frequent the classes are elderly, people of all ages are welcomed.
The North Miami Beach Public Library also offers English as a Second Language courses specifically to help younger people improve their reading, writing and speaking skills. And Pérez is at the front desk every other day of the week ready to help.
“I’ve worked in this library for two years now, and I love that we get to offer all of these services to the community for free,” she said.