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Feb 23, 2016 4:26 PMPublication: The Southampton Press

Remsenburg Woman Completes 17-Year Journey, Becomes U.S. Citizen

Lina Ortiz, of Remsenburg, passed her citizenship test on January 27. AMANDA BERNOCCO
Feb 24, 2016 11:56 AM

Ask Lina Ortiz what she finds most exciting about becoming an American citizen, and the Colombian native does not hesitate before answering.“I’m excited that now I can vote,” she said.

More specifically, Ms. Ortiz said she is thrilled to be able to vote in her first presidential election in November, though the freshly minted Democrat is quick to note that she has not yet decided which candidate she will be supporting. She intends to continue following the campaigns of her party’s presidential hopefuls, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, before making a final decision.

“My party is Democrat, but I don’t know yet who I’m going to vote [for],” Ms. Ortiz said this week. “I have to keep following it more.”

Earning the right to vote was something that Ms. Ortiz most looked forward to during her 17-year journey to becoming a U.S. citizen, a quest that the Remsenburg resident finally completed on January 27.

“I was happy,” Ms. Ortiz said of passing the citizenship test. “And do you want to know why I was happy? Because now I can use one of my rights—to vote.”

Ms. Ortiz said she picked up and moved to the United States on a visa in March 1999 because her now ex-husband had family in the states. That decision started her long journey to finally becoming a citizen.

The path to citizenship can vary and largely depends on how a person gains their permanent residency, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website. A representative from the government agency did not respond to a request for comment this week.

Ms. Ortiz arrived in America in 1999 and was not able to establish her permanent residence for another six years. She attributed part of the wait to the language barrier—she took five English classes while studying for her undergraduate degree in social work while she was still in Colombia, but she wasn’t fluent in the language yet. In the years before gaining her residency, Ms. Ortiz enrolled in English as a Second Language programs through the Board of Cooperative Educational Services, or BOCES and Suffolk County Community College.

“Some people think you’re going to come here and it’s going to happen right away, but it takes time and hard work,” Ms. Ortiz said of the process of becoming a citizen.

She said one of the most difficult aspects for her was leaving behind her supportive family and friends in Colombia.

“The expression is: ‘You come in with your luggage empty,’” Ms. Ortiz said. “I don’t have my family, I don’t have my friends, I don’t have anybody. I had to start from zero. I had everything in Colombia. I had my friends, I had my family, I had my job—but I made the decision to move here. It wasn’t easy, but I’m more happy now.”

Determined to keep moving forward, Ms. Ortiz started applying for jobs shortly after gaining her residency. She landed her current job as a social worker with Long Island Head Start in Patchogue in February 2006.

Ms. Ortiz explained that she still had to wait several years before applying to take the citizenship test. To take the exam, she had to prove that she paid taxes for five years and never committed a felony, and had to pay a $685 fee.

Once she was approved, she had to get fingerprinted and then started studying for the test. “I tried to study every day after work,” Ms. Ortiz said, pointing to her book with a worn-out spine and filled with highlighted text. “I was scared I was going to forget the answers.”

Steve Bigora, Ms. Ortiz’s boyfriend, said he was impressed with her dedication when it came to studying. “It’s something you can’t help but admire about her,” said Mr. Bigora, who also lives in Remsenburg. “She works all week and, in all her free time, she had her nose in that book studying.”

The test, which is usually administered in English, has four parts: speaking, reading, writing and civics. The applicant’s ability to speak English is determined by the conversation with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services officer who administers the exam.

For the reading portion, the applicant has to read three sentences focusing on American civics and history. For example, some of the vocabulary words appearing in the sentences could include some of the following words and names: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Bill of Rights, White House, American flag, Presidents Day and Independence Day.

For the writing portion of the test, the applicant is asked to write sentences using similar vocabulary as the reading portion.

And for the civics portion, the applicant is asked 10 questions about American history. The questions are picked at random from the study guide that boasts 100 questions that test the applicant’s knowledge about everything from democracy and the right of American citizens, to history and geography. To pass this part of the test, the applicant must answer six out of 10 questions correctly.

The good part about the exam, Ms. Ortiz notes, is that she did not have to wait long to know if she passed. In fact, they informed her the very same day.

“It wasn’t that hard, because I studied every day,” Ms. Ortiz said. “I work with kids, so I needed to know something about the country I live in.”

Mr. Bigora said he was proud of her and knew she was going to pass. “She was like a little kid at Christmas,” he said while recalling her reaction to passing the exam. “She was so excited … I’m proud of her every day.”

She quickly shared the news with her parents, Oliva and Horacio Ortiz, and her brothers, Fernando and John Ortiz, all of whom still live in Colombia.

Ms. Ortiz attended her official citizenship ceremony in Central Islip on February 11. At the ceremony, Ms. Ortiz said she was one of 140 people representing 41 different countries to earn their citizenship.

“I feel more safe now, because they could always take your residence back,” Ms. Ortiz said this week. “Now I am an American citizen, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to be doing the right thing.”

Passing her citizenship exam was Ms. Ortiz’s top goal for 2016. Now that she’s knocked that off the list, she is moving on to the next item: applying to graduate schools so she can earn her master’s degree in social work. “You always have to have something to do,” she said. “You can’t just get [your citizenship] and just stop. You always have to keep going.”

She added that she hopes by sharing her story, she will encourage others who might be frightened of taking the exam to push themselves.

“I want, especially Spanish people who are going to a new country, to know you’re not alone,” Ms. Ortiz said. “People are coming here and they have to work hard to get what they have. It’s not just about me—it’s for everybody. Everybody can do it. I can learn the language, even though it’s not easy. Sometimes I have to repeat because people don’t understand what I’m saying, but I try.”

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I'm a gonna go ahead and guess she's NOT voting for Trump.

Congratulations Lina!
By johnj (1024), Westhampton on Feb 24, 16 3:35 PM
I second that!
By HamptonDad (236), Hampton Bays on Feb 24, 16 4:57 PM
And unlike the Democrats we respect that she did it legally and will fight to keep others who couldn't be bothered to abide by our laws from jumping the line. Thank you Ms. Ortiz!
By jams (129), hampton bays on Feb 25, 16 7:03 AM
Congratulations Ms. Ortiz...good for you for going the legal route. It took patience - hard work and perseverance - you are the kind of immigrant that truly deserves to become a United States Citizen - and the kind that we who were lucky to be born here appreciate joining us. We also get to serve on Jury Duty and pay taxes as well as vote - and can also avail ourselves of the Freedom of Information available to us. Good work. We welcome you.
By Vikki K (490), Southampton on Feb 25, 16 5:26 PM