Finding Their ‘Voice’ In The U.S.

Grant Helps Make Good, New Citizens

Posted: October 4, 2012

Students scrutinize a civics and literacy guide during class at Massanutten Regional Library on Wednesday. Cracking the books are (left to right) Jendry Paulino, Romona Paulino, Celerino Tinoco and Yamira Cardona. He’s studied at home, Tinoco said, but “I decided to come here and get some orientation.” (Photos by Michael Reilly / DN-R)
Teacher Dale McCoy lends a hand to Aung Hla during writing practice at the Massanutten Regional Library on Wednesday.
HARRISONBURG — Throughout his nearly two decades living in the United States, Celerino Tinoco has felt like he doesn’t quite count.

A permanent legal resident, Tinoco emigrated from Mexico 18 years ago.

Casting ballots in local, state and federal elections obviously hasn’t been an option for the 38-year-old father, who now lives in Harrisonburg.

“Your voice is not that …  important,” he said.

But Tinoco hopes that will all soon change as he begins the process of becoming a naturalized citizen and receiving the rights and privileges associated with the achievement.

He’s one of several people taking a citizenship preparation course being offered by Skyline Literacy of Harrisonburg in a partnership with the local Refugee Resettlement Program. Tinoco’s course started this week.

“I have studied before at my house but I decided to come here to get some orientation, and I think it works,” he said.

Skyline recently received a nearly $160,000, two-year grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide the service, which officials estimate could benefit 300 legal residents over the life of the grant.

Elizabeth Girvan, executive director of Skyline, said the organization and Refugee Resettlement Program are aiming to help up to 200 people go on to finish the naturalization application process and become citizens.

“It’s really all about helping people become independent, empowering people,” she said. “It really allows them to engage in the community.”

Skyline has offered citizenship courses for years, but the grant allows it to increase the scope and reach, with courses being offered in Winchester and Augusta County in addition to Harrisonburg.

Classes meet twice a week for six weeks, with new ones beginning every couple of months.

Last year, Skyline was able to “finagle” its limited resources to offer citizenship courses for 80 people, 50 of whom went on to pass the citizenship exam.

As is the case with most nonprofits, funding has been cut in recent years for Skyline, a United Way partner agency.

“Without these [grant] funds, could we have offered this program to the extent we are? Absolutely not,” Girvan said.

Becoming a citizen is not a simple procedure, Girvan said, particularly for nonnative English speakers.

Applicants must meet several criteria, including being a lawful resident for at least five years; not having serious criminal convictions; being able to read, write and understand English; having knowledge of U.S. government and history; and taking the Oath of Allegiance, according to Citizenship and Immigration Services, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.

Nelly Moreno Shenk, program manager for Skyline, said most participants last year hailed from Central America, but students also emigrated from Iraq, Russia and other nations.

In all, more than two dozen countries were represented, she said.

Contact Jeremy Hunt at 574-6273 or

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