For Juan Giarrizzo, the road to a future seat in the U.S. Senate runs through Philadelphia, and specifically through the Museum of the American Revolution at Third and Chestnut Streets.
That’s because the institution is helping him — a migrant from Venezuela — prepare to take the test for American citizenship, the prime prerequisite for holding elective office.
Giarrizzo, 42, is taking part in a new museum initiative that uses the rich trove of exhibits, artifacts, and narratives to prepare legal permanent residents, also known as green-card holders, for the rigorous naturalization exam.
“It makes the learning more permanent,” said Giarrizzo, a project manager at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who lives in South Philadelphia. “It gives you a context of emotion, of history. It reminds you that this country is made up of all different people.”
The free, eight-session evening program aims to strengthen immigrants’ understanding of the nation’s revolution and evolution, a challenge for those who came to the U.S. from all over the world, including China, Vietnam, Russia, South Korea, Uzbekistan, and even England. It arrives as the Trump administration plans to make changes to the test.
The course requires time and study. It would be easier to simply review practice questions on the website of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), the federal agency that administers the test. Or even to study with flashcards.
But Giarrizzo and others say they want to better comprehend the events and motivations behind the nation’s creation and operation. For them, such words as liberty, freedom, and equality are not stale, textbook platitudes, but real values to be lived.
“We provide the connective tissue,” said educator Dana Devon, who teaches the class with assistance from museum specialists. “These people want to be stakeholders. They want to know more than the three branches of government.”
The museum is itself a newcomer, just two years old, residing in a city that’s been an entry port for immigrants since Philadelphia was founded in 1682. Its Citizenship Initiative comes at a moment when migrants often find themselves resented in American society, and when the Trump administration is working to restrict immigration and toughen enforcement at almost every level. Only 24% of Americans want more migrants to come here.
An estimated 13.2 million foreign-born permanent residents live in the United States, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Most qualified for a green card — named for its traditional hue — because they are the family member of a citizen, an employee of a U.S. company, or a refugee or asylum seeker granted protection in this country.
About 9 million are eligible to become naturalized citizens. To do so, they must pass one test on English proficiency and another on American history and government.
USCIS, which oversees legal immigration, announced last month that it plans to “improve” the civics test, which some immigration advocates interpreted as “make it harder.”
“Granting U. S. citizenship is the highest honor our nation bestows,” USCIS acting director Ken Cuccinelli, an immigration hardliner, said in a statement. “Updating, maintaining, and improving a test that is current and relevant is our responsibility as an agency in order to help potential new citizens fully understand the meaning of U.S. citizenship and the values that unite all Americans.”
Green-card holders can live and work here indefinitely. They enjoy many privileges of citizenship — but not all.
They cannot vote in federal elections, or in most state and local balloting. Their international travel can be curbed. And citizens generally get priority in petitioning to bring family members to this country.
Green-card holders can face deportation under certain circumstances, particularly if they commit a crime, including some misdemeanors.
Only citizenship offers sure protection from deportation, although the Trump administration has undertaken to find and denaturalize migrants suspected of committing fraud on their applications.
The civics test is administered orally, with USCIS officers selecting up to 10 questions from a list of 100. Successful applicants must score at least 60%.
That can be harder than it sounds. Only four in 10 Americans can actually pass the test, according to a survey by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship. The test questions can be tricky.
For example: When was the Constitution written? In 1790, 1789, 1787 or 1776?
The correct answer is 1787. The Continental Army won the war in 1783, but for years afterward, the nation was governed by a congress of representatives from the states. In 1787, the state delegates met in Philadelphia and wrote the Constitution.
“This initiative is about more than just helping people to pass a test,” said Elizabeth Grant, the museum director of education. “It is about developing a deeper understanding of and appreciation for our nation’s history, and empowering our new fellow citizens to be active, engaged participants in our democracy.”
Registration is open for the next set of classes, which start Oct. 28.
Last Wednesday evening, students started out in a basement classroom, discussing the early use of political propaganda. Then they moved to the Liberty Tree Gallery to review a wall-sized image of Paul Revere’s famous — and famously sensationalized — engraving of the Boston Massacre.
The occupying British redcoats are depicted firing into a crowd of civilians — in front of a storefront labeled, “Butcher’s Hall,” just in case anyone missed the point.
Based solely on the information in the illustration, teacher Devon asked the students what they would title the picture.
Bloody massacre, one suggested.
“What makes you think it’s a massacre?” Devon asked.
“It’s unbalanced,” said Mariana Mendez, 46, originally from Venezuela, who teaches English and philosophy at Drexel University. The soldiers were armed, the citizens were not, she explained.
In a second gallery, the class tackled what museum educator Joella Clamen called, “Fun with flags.”
The survey of the American flag started with the meaning behind the pine-tree flag used during the Revolution, and the Gadsden flag, with its coiled rattlesnake warning, “Don’t tread on me.” It continued through more familiar incarnations bearing stars and stripes.
At least two test questions reference the reasons for those elements on the flag.
“It’s helping me [learn] a lot of things I didn’t know, about the Americans and the British,” said student Verdline Vernel, 30, from Haiti.
To become a citizen, green-card holders must have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, or three years if they are married to an American citizen.
That’s the case for Paul Greenhalgh, from England, whose wife is a citizen.
“I still don’t know whether I want to be a citizen or not, but I wanted to know more about America,” the 40-year-old Center City resident said during a break from class. “It’s joining the dots. … You feel like you’re living in it for a moment.”
People forget, said aspiring politician Giarrizzo, that the creation of America was a radical idea, a deliberate discarding of paternal authority and an embrace of individual freedom of religion, thought, and expression.
That’s why he wants to run for Congress, where only citizens may serve, to help lead the American experiment in democracy.
“Who is in office matters,” Giarrizzo said. “I believe I can make a positive difference.”