Where are you from?

It’s a simple enough question – with an endless variety of answers. Are you from the land of your birth? From the place where you spent your childhood? From the village or city where you now live? For many of us (maybe most), it’s the same place: We live where we were raised or where we were born. Others, though, have called many places home at different times in their lives.

Sokha was born to Cambodian parents in the Philippines. When he was an infant, his family immigrated to the United States. Sokha is now a 32-year-old man living in Revere, Mass. His mother, father, sister, and brothers all live close by. And, like most families, they enjoy gathering to celebrate birthdays, holidays, cultural traditions, and food. Especially food! In other words, a typical American family of the 21st century.

The entire family became naturalized citizens of the United States.

Sokha’s mother is tremendously grateful for every opportunity this country has given her family. So, she encouraged all of her children to seek citizenship.

It was especially important to her for Sokha to become an American citizen, and she was worried he would not be able to do that. Why? Because at an early age Sokha was diagnosed with severe intellectual disabilities and a seizure disorder. He was able to receive medical, behavioral, and educational services as a resident of Massachusetts. And at 22, when he “aged out” of the childhood programs, Sokha moved into one of May Institute’s residential group homes.

Over these past 10 years, Sokha has benefited from the constant support, training, education, and encouragement of the May staff and his family. He has been able to achieve success to the fullest extent of his dis/abilities. Most important, Sokha is leading a fulfilled and happy life. He has become indispensable to the May staff, helping out in every way he can. They have come to refer to him, only half-jokingly, as a “junior staff member.” He has also become something of a mentor to his housemates, helping them learn the routines of household chores like washing the dishes, taking out trash, and doing laundry. He helps staff prepare lunches and dinners for the home. Sokha also has a remarkable facility with mechanics and electronics. When he wanted better sound quality from the television in his room, he borrowed a housemate’s stereo system and wired it into his TV.

When Sokha’s mother contacted May Institute about her wish for her son to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, it raised questions about how Sokha would be able to do this. After all, his verbal capacity is extremely limited; he cannot speak or process complex language. The citizenship test requires passing a 20-question oral civics exam (e.g., How many Senators in each state? What is the highest court in the land?) and a recitation of the Oath of Allegiance:

I hereby declare, on oath, that I absolutely and entirely renounce and abjure all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign prince, potentate, state, or sovereignty of whom or which I have heretofore been a subject or citizen; that I will support and defend the Constitution and laws of the United States of America against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I will bear arms on behalf of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform noncombatant service in the Armed Forces of the United States when required by the law; that I will perform work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law; and that I take this obligation freely without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; so help me God.

There are certain exemptions made for people with physical disabilities, or those who must take the test in a language other than English… but people with severe intellectual disabilities are sufficiently rare in the line for citizenship that they have not typically enjoyed much in the way of accommodation. That is changing–thanks in large part to people like Sokha and his family who push the envelope on what is possible.

The May staff, though, were undaunted. Traci, a Director of Residential Services and Jésus, a Program Specialist, began organizing for the process. Sokha’s mother had been robbed some years back and all of Sokha’s official paperwork was missing: birth certificate, Social Security card, etc. So first they had to get all of that documentation in place again to begin the filing process. Then…

An independent evaluation was required from a psychologist documenting the cognitive disabilities and language barriers which prevented Sokha from applying on his own. Then… Sokha’s primary care physician provided a letter stating that his disabilities meant he would not be able to answer certain questions or qualify for some parts of the process. Then…

Jésus had to work with the Selective Service System to get a letter explaining that Sokha was not required to register for military conscription (a requirement for citizenship) due to his intellectual and other disabilities.

With all the necessary documentation in place, the application was completed and submitted. Five months later, an initial meeting with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was attended by May staff on Sokha’s behalf. Additional documentation was required, so Traci and Jésus worked for two months compiling that information for DHS.

At that next meeting our May Institute staff proposed a slight departure from the norm, and DHS agreed to send their officials out to the May residence where Sokha lives. In the familiar surroundings of home, with his family and May staff supporting him, Sokha would be able to meet the citizenship requirements to the best of his abilities.

And so it was, a full year after the initial meeting with DHS, that the ceremony took place.

Would you like to become a citizen? His mother assisted him in answering "Yes". Mom spoke about why citizenship for Sokha was so important to her. She felt strongly that once she transitioned to the United States it had been nothing but beneficial and improved Sokha’s quality of life, especially with the disabilities he has. She said he would not have been able to receive such services in either Cambodia or the Philippines. And it was extremely important for her to know that Sokha was solidly established within this country that has assisted him with his disabilities – and even more so in Massachusetts – because she felt the services here were much better for him.

As Traci recalls that moment, “Finally, we were able to present him with the certificate, with the acting agent from Homeland Security. Sokha was extremely excited. There was a little scene where they gave him two American flags and the certificate of citizenship with his photo on it.

“His mother was elated. Sokha knew that something very good was happening and he was very happy. I’m not sure if he completely understood that he was now an American citizen, but he knew that he had accomplished something that his mom was thrilled about, as were we all.“  

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