Bernadine, originally from Saint Kitts and Nevis, came to the United States at the age of nineteen, hoping to receive a college education. She was fortunate to receive her permanent residency in 1977. Before arriving in the U.S., Bernadine had been a student at the University of the Virgin Islands for a year.
Bernadine enrolled at Trinity University, with a major in Information Technology Systems and a minor in Economics. As part of the evening program, Bernadine continued working and taking care of her four daughters. At 32 years old, back in 1992, Bernadine began working for the District of Columbia Public School system, where she still works to this day. While she began working part time as a Data Entry Clerk, she was offered a permanent position in 1999 and she currently serves as an Administrative Officer.
Despite having received an education and found a secure job in the United States, Bernadine felt that she did not fully belong. One of the most important things for Bernadine was the ability to vote. Bernadine had lived in the United States for more than 40 years, and she did not feel part of the American society, because she could not vote. She felt that she was unable to have her voice heard on various topics that she was passionate about.
Bernadine expresses how thankful she is for the New American Workforce program as it provided her the confidence and preparation, she desperately needed to begin her naturalization process. Bernadine shared that finances were a major concern in her household. Her husband left her when their daughters were young, so she had to raise her four children on her own. Bernadine felt she did not have the extra money to pay for her citizenship application and associated legal fees, because she prioritized providing for her four daughters.
About ten years ago she tried to apply for her citizenship on her own, given that she did not have the money to pay for professional legal services. However, because she did not know what she was doing, she got scammed out of her money. After that experience, she decided to stop pursuing her goal until she had the financial stability to pursue her citizenship. When her daughters began having children, she directed her efforts to financially support and help provide for her grandchildren. Given the priorities that Bernadine had in her life, pursuing her citizenship seemed out of reach.
Last year, Bernadine saw an advertisement about the DC Government’s partnership with the New American Workforce program and screamed with joy because she knew that this would be her opportunity to pursue her long-life goal of becoming a citizen. She is very thankful for the program because the citizenship workshops provided her with the information, she needed to understand what to expect from the process. Bernadine is grateful for the monetary resources from Mayor Bowser’s Citizenship Fund and guidance from legal providers, as her citizenship process went smoothly.
In September of 2020, Bernadine was sworn in as a naturalized citizen in the same courthouse where she filled out her voter registration form. Bernadine shared that she went with her daughter to an elementary school to vote during this year’s Presidential election. She received a standing ovation from those present because her daughter told everyone that her mom was going to vote for the very first time in her life!
Bernadine encourages other eligible immigrants to naturalize and become full participants in American society, by having their voices counted at the ballot box. She shared how little things like serving on jury duty are something that she would not have been able to do before being naturalized. She hopes that individuals who are in her position can feel the joy that she feels because they are no longer just working in the United States, but they are also actively participating in their country’s future.
The National Immigration Forum would like to thank Yesenia Gutierrez, Integration Programs intern, for capturing this story.