Malfovon, who lives in Kingsport, works at St. Dominic's Catholic Church. The Tri-Cities location was a better alternative for her than traveling to Knoxville, Nashville or Chattanooga, previously the nearest locations where classes are being held.
The class taught students about the application for citizenship and prepared them for a citizenship interview and two tests. After paying an initial $50 fee, students received a textbook for the class, a workbook and any additional tutoring in English reading or writing.
Knoxville organization Tennessee Immigrant Empowerment Solutions, or TIES, sponsored the classes. TIES co-founder Charles Mulligan previously worked with Catholic Charities of East Tennessee, assisting immigrants with their legal needs.
TIES began holding classes in Knoxville and Chattanooga. By expanding class locations, the charity is able to reach more people in more places and help more people become citizens.
Alma Vásquez is the main contact person at Catholic Charities for people who are interested in taking the Johnson City class.
"This was the first year that we've ever done this. It started out small, but we're hoping that the classes will grow," Vásqez said. "The best thing about the classes is that they give people confidence to go through the naturalization process."
"It gives a legitimate pathway for immigrants seeking citizenship."
– Peter Torok, volunteer
The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website lists only one organization in Nashville for citizenship and legal matters in Tennessee. Catholic Charities is listed under other states, but not Tennessee, which can make it a little harder for people to find locations near them. In some states, there are no listings at all.
USCIS also holds free meetings about naturalization. However, not every state has meetings, and if someone from Tennessee wants to attend, the closest session may be in a different state, such as Virginia or Kentucky.
The United States Census estimated that in Tennessee alone, from the years 2009 to 2012 there was a 4.2 percent increase in foreign-born persons. In 2012, out of the 6.5 million people living in Tennessee, 291,641 people were not born in the United States.
According to United States Census estimates, in Johnson City the population was 65,123 in 2013. More than 8,000 of the people living in Johnson City were naturalized citizens, meaning they came from a different country and went through the citizenship process.
Geri Mulligan was formerly a director of the Center for Literacy, Education and Employment at the University of Tennessee. She wishes there were more opportunities to hold more classes for citizenship.
"There are online classes available all over the Internet, but not every person has Internet access. Many people who we are trying to help are in certain living situations that limit their opportunities," she said.
Passionate about helping others, the Mulligans try their hardest when it comes to expanding immigration services. The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace honored the Mulligans with the 2014 Peacemaker Award for their work with immigrants.
Charles Mulligan has high admiration for Catholic Charities. It is a great organization that helps those in need in different communities, Mulligan said.
"And the fact that it's a Catholic charity that opens its arms to anyone despite their religion is really what these organizations should be about," he said. "Plus, the class is a reasonable price that covers everything they need, including textbooks."
When it comes to material covered in the class, students are provided a textbook called "Voices of Freedom: English and Civics for U.S. Citizenship." The text is used in many classes across the country, and is praised for being easy to understand for non-English speakers. The text is also used in many government classes in high schools and middle schools.
Peter Torok, a retired doctor and veteran, was one of the teachers for the class. He worked with a student from India, Vinodchandra Patel, and another from the Philippines, Carolina Carter.
A first-generation American, Torok said his parents immigrated to the United States from Hungary. Being able to give back was what motivated him to volunteer.
He recalled that the classrooms in Memorial Park Community Center were a "secure and safe learning environment" for the students. He learned a lot by teaching civics and U.S. government, and about the different responsibilities of citizenship and voting.
"I wanted to give back. I felt it was my duty to help others," said Torok.
The civics portion of the test attracts the attention of many people who want a firsthand look at how difficult the test can be. To become a citizen, immigrants have to go to an interview where they answer questions about their application and personal background.
In terms of government, Torok said that they would need to know the candidates for office, the two major political parties and what they stand for. They should also understand the requirements to be able to vote. Using audio and visual tools and other technology helped Torok teach these subjects.
Also, they must take an English and Civics test based on material from the textbook unless they have a waiver or are excused from taking the test.
If the applicant doesn't pass the test, they will be retested on the portion of the test that they failed between 60 and 90 days from the date of the interview. To qualify for citizenship, applicants must be permanent residents of the U.S. for at least five years, or if they are filing as a spouse of a U.S. citizen, they must be a permanent resident for at least three years.
For children under the age of 18 who seek citizenship through their parents, the requirements vary depending on when the child was born, if U.S. citizens adopted them or if the parents are already citizens.
After taking the class, participants have the option to go through the full citizenship process. Not everyone decides to set up an interview and test date after the class, Vásquez said. She hopes that Catholic Charities can have more classes in 2015.
Torok described his experience working with the students as very rewarding, and praises the program, saying: "It gives a legitimate pathway for immigrants seeking citizenship."
For more information about the classes, please contact Alma Vásquez by calling 328-0070, ext. 104.
Above right, Alejandra Malfovon and her children pose with Geri Mulligan after receiving her certificate.
At left, U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Tenn., second from left, supported those who took the class.
Photos by Mary Alice Basconi