When Karla Barbosa first came to live in the United States she was shy, spoke no English and had to repeat fourth-grade because she didn't have the appropriate paperwork the first time around.
That was nearly 10 years ago, before she found her voice.
Now, at 18, Barbosa is a senior at Middle College High School and has big plans for the future, including college, law school and a lifetime of public service.
But before she moves on to the next stage of her life, she has to finish her senior project, a task that is unsavory to some teens but a life-changing event for her.
She will become a U.S. citizen.
"I knew I wanted to do it since I was a junior," she says with a smile studded by braces.
Her journey comes at a time when immigration is being questioned by the federal government. A rash of protests among students as well as legal and illegal immigrants has raised tensions across the nation.
Barbosa, as well as her parents, are currently living in Lockeford under a legal alien status, a long-term temporary work permission slip. They must carry pink identification cards with their registration numbers. Barbosa's 14-year-old brother, born on U.S. soil, is the only American citizen of the household.
Her father works at a winery in Victor handling contracts after putting in several years of field work. Her mother stays at home. They came to America because they wanted more for their children than they could get in Jalisco, Mexico.
So far, Barbosa has not disappointed their hopes for her future. She made solid grades in school and picked up a working English vocabulary by the time she was in fifth grade.
The more she learned, the more she began to understand Americans and their sometimes tenuous relationship with immigrants. She saw family members try to enter the states illegal only to be caught and sent back, saw lawyers mislead immigrants seeking legal status.
In that time, she came to see that an education could mean the difference between a happy life and failure. She kept up with her studies while moving from Galt to Stockton to Acampo, where she attended Houston School.
Steps to U.S. citizenshipNaturalization is the process by which United States citizenship is conferred upon a foreign citizen or national after he or she fulfills the requirements established by the U.S. Congress in the Immigration and Nationality Act. The general requirements, among other things, for administrative naturalization include:
• A period of continuous residence and physical presence in the
• A residence in a particular United States and Citizenship and Immigration Services district prior to filing
• An ability to read, write and speak English
• A knowledge and understanding of U.S. history and government
• Good moral character
• Attachment to the principles of the U.S. Constitution
• A favorable disposition toward the United States
• Passing a citizenship test on knowledge of the country
The time it takes to be naturalized varies from one local office to another.
For example, in 1997, in many places, it took over two years to process an application. As of October 2001, USCIS reported that it takes, on average, between six and nine months to become naturalized.
Source: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
Must pass testTo become a U.S. citizen, applicants must pass a test demonstrating their knowledge of this county's history. Below is a sample test with the answers in bold.
1. Who is the President of the United States today?
a. Al Gore
b. George W. Bush
c. Dick Cheney
d. Bill Clinton
2. What is the maximum number of terms for which a person can be
d. There is no limit
3. Who wrote the "Star Spangled Banner?"
a. Francis Scott Key
b. George Washington
c. Thomas Jefferson
d. Martin Luther King, Jr.
4. What did the Emancipation Proclamation do?
a. Freed the Indians
b. Ended the Civil War
c. Freed many slaves
d. Ended World War II
5. Which list contains three rights or freedoms guaranteed by
the Bill of Rights?
a. Right to Life, Right to Liberty, Right to the Pursuit of Happiness
b. Freedom of speech, Freedom of press, Freedom of religion
c. Right to protest, Right to Protection under the law, Freedom of religion
d. Freedom of religion, Right to elect representatives, Human rights
Source: United States Citizenship and Immigration Services
As an eighth-grader, Barbosa applied for the academically rigorous Middle College High School, whose aim is help hard-working children be the first in their family to go to college.
There, she met teachers and counselors who encouraged her to reach as far as she could. For three years, she took a 7 a.m. shuttle bus from Lodi High to Middle College at the San Joaquin Delta College campus only to get back home at 6 p.m.
Middle College teacher Glen Simpson said Barbosa's senior project embodies the spirit of independent learning, the main focus of the program.
"This is an extension of her learning," he said of Barbosa. "You go, girl!"
In the past year, Barbosa has volunteered with the California Mini-Corps, a mentoring program for people from a rural migrant background. It wasn't until she spoke at a rally for immigrants rights held at the Sacramento Capitol in August 2005 that she came up with the idea for her senior project.
The project requires 15 hours of participation in a field of work or interest, but Barbosa has put in more than 60 tutoring kids at local schools and watching children whose immigrant parents are taking General Educational Development classes.
"Everyone deserves a chance in life," she said simply.
In the fall, Barbosa hopes to attend University of the Pacific, which she says has a strong International Studies department, though she's gotten acceptance letters from at least five other reputable area colleges.
Her goal is to work as an immigration attorney for low-income individuals, to see them through the process she herself is going through now.
Recently, the high school senior has attended demonstrations against federal legislation being proposed that would make illegal residents felons under the law. She especially opposes House Bill 4437, which would make it illegal for anyone to aid illegal immigrants.
"It's inhumane," she said of the proposal. "When there are people who want to come for the right reasons, they should have a chance to come here."
As for her own status, Barbosa has applied for citizenship, a complicated process that comes with a hefty $400 price tag. She saved up her tutoring money for six months to cover the costs herself.
With the help of Stockton attorney Hector Cavazos, her mentor for the project, Barbosa has been fingerprinted, registered and has carefully recorded every entry and re-entry date to and from the United States.
She is studying U.S. government - facts and statistics most Americans would scratch their heads over. She has studied 100 sample questions and is still waiting for a written invitation to take the exam. She hopes to hear word in the next two weeks.
But should she pass the most important test of her life, her journey will have been worth it, she says.
"If you dedicate yourself to it, you can do it."
First published: Saturday, April 1, 2006