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Cutting through red tape; The quick method to U.S. citizenship

STILLWATER, Okla. (AP) -- It's a small world after all.

Alfonso Guzman was a busboy in a Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, Kan., when he got to know one of the customers, Sgt. 1st Class Brian Galarza, who was enrolled in Army training at nearby Fort Riley.

That was 1998.

A year later, Guzman moved to Stillwater to open his own restaurant, El Tapatio, on Boomer Road. Galarza just happened to be stationed in Stillwater as an Army adviser to the Oklahoma National Guard unit.

The two ran into each other again last October. It was then that Guzman -- originally from Jalisco, Mexico -- asked Galarza for advice on becoming a U.S. citizen. By then, Guzman had been living in the United States for five years, the minimum the government requires for citizenship application.

Earlier this month Guzman passed his naturalization exam, and in a month or so will take his oath as a new U.S. citizen How in the world did the usually glacial mechanism of government move so quickly?

Galarza made a phone call -- to the Department of Justice in Washington, D.C., requesting a citizenship application packet. With Galarza as Guzman's sponsor, the documents were filled out and mailed back to Washington.

Next Guzman hit the books, with the sergeant as his mentor. Sacrificing his lunch hour five days a week, Galarza got permission to tutor his "pupil" in the classroom at the National Guard headquarters where he keeps his office.

"He would come into this classroom here, from 11:30 a.m. to 1p.m., and I would work with him," Galarza said. "There's 100 questions on the exam, and I would break it down to 15 to 20 questions a day."

He gave his friend a copy of the sample exam questions (with the answers blacked out) included with the citizenship packet. Lessons took place amid a blizzard of yellow sticky notes and three-by-five note cards. Civics, the Constitution, the U.S. flag -- things most Americans forget after high school.

At the same time, Guzman took a crash course in the language of his adopted country, with lesson tapes supplied by Galarza. His English, he insists, is "not very good," but "I'm trying."

Guzman says he studied hard "in the nights, in the mornings and the break time. All my free time." He went to Oklahoma City on April 19 for the two-hour exam, finishing in about 30 minutes.

"Basically what I did for him was the leg work," Galarza said. "I always carry an American flag in my combat gear and in my wallet. ... I gave it to him. That was one of the motivators.

"Not only that, we had what we called the money game. So for every question he got right I would reward him. For every question he got wrong he would pay me back, so that's a good incentive."

Guzman said he's "very happy" about two things -- his impending U.S. citizenship and his acquaintance with Galarza. Both men come from families of eight. Galarza is of Puerto Rican descent, but was born and raised in New York with the accent to prove it.

On his visits to the naturalization office with his friend, Galarza saw other people applying for citizenship -- immigration lawyers in tow.

"My services have been free from day one," he said. "And from day one he's invited me to eat (free) at his restaurant. And no, that's not what it's all about. It's about helping people. All I want him to do now is help someone else."

Guzman, switching to Spanish with Galarza translating, said he's looking forward to doing just that, now that he knows how.

"It's not easy," Galarza said. "You've got to have the heart to want to learn how to speak English. You've got to have the heart to know the Constitution, the civics questions."

He added he would like to see more Americans become advocates for people from other countries who want to become U.S. citizens.

"I've always been taught values that when you help someone, it always comes back in return," Galarza said.
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