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American dreams lead Las Vegans on quest for citizenship

Sunrise Manor resident Carlos Castillo doesn’t remember his entry into the United States well, but he does remember being told to pretend he was sleeping.

"I was 10 or 11, and we had my cousin’s birth certificate," Castillo said. "They looked in and saw me ‘sleeping’ in the back seat and waved us through. It was easier to cross the border then."

Castillo is now 42, and after spending nearly half of his childhood and his entire adult life in the United States, he’s pursuing what he has always dreamed of, U.S. citizenship.

Castillo has lived in the valley since 1998, and he cuts an imposing figure. He’s built low and large with a slew of fading tattoos on his beefy forearms that imply a more colorful past. His current life is fairly low-key.

"I’m a toner tech," he said. "I supply and repair copy machines, fax machines, that kind of stuff."

Castillo was one of two dozen prospective citizens who showed up on a Saturday morning to attend America 101 citizenship classes at 730 W. Cheyenne Ave., Suite 150, the local office of CORE, Congress of Racial Equality, a nonprofit national civil rights organization.

Castillo’s fellow attendees included some with backgrounds similar to his but also a few Filipino immigrants and a woman from a circus family who speaks five languages and has visited 90 countries.

After an initial language proficiency test, the group was split into three, with Castillo and several others with high English proficiency moving to a small back office to attend a class in civics geared toward passing the U.S. citizenship test.

"These are hard-working people. These aren’t people who are trying to milk the system," said volunteer instructor Dave McKeon. "I truly believe if the community saw what CORE is doing here, there would be greater support for it."

McKeon was in the fifth week of a nine-week class that prepares citizenship candidates to answer the 100 civics and history questions with which they are expected to be familiar. The section they were working on dealt with the workings of the branches of the government. While it seemed from his mastery of the subject that McKeon was a seasoned social studies teacher, this was his first class. As the youngest son of U.S. Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., Dave McKeon has hands-on civics experience.

"Having a father in Congress gives you a unique view of the government," he said. "And being on a mission (for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) where I learned Spanish also breaks down barriers."

McKeon also draws instructing inspiration from teachers who have impacted his life.

"I look back on certain teachers in my life who had a great influence over me," he said. "They’re the people who put a thought in my head that let me see things in a different light."

McKeon makes his living as a producer, putting together shows for entertainers such as Kanye West and Gnarls Barkley. He was hired to produce a show for CORE called Nevadans by Choice in January, and he was so impressed by what he saw that he came down to the offices to find out what he could do to help.

His fluency in Spanish made him an excellent candidate to teach the class.

"I look forward to my Saturdays," McKeon said. "Other people might want to be doing something else on Saturday from 10 to 2, but I want to be here."

McKeon said the CORE class has a 100 percent success rate. Everyone who has completed it has passed the citizenship test.

CORE also helps with a wide variety of immigration issues, including translations, Green Card renewals, expedited citizenship for active or recently discharged U.S. armed forces personnel and domestic violence petitions.

Niger Innis, a national spokesman for CORE, said roughly 1,500 people go through its citizenship classes annually. It’s a misconception, he said, that they ducked across the Mexican border.

"We have folks from South America," he said. "We have folks from Central America … You can’t take the class unless you are here legally."

Castillo is happy to be taking the class, although he found it challenging at first.

"I haven’t been to school since 11th grade," he said. "There’s a lot to learn."

During the class McKeon shared his personal experiences with his students as examples and illustrations of the class work. It’s been a two-way street.

"They’ve taken the time to share their experiences with me," McKeon said. "I think if people want to go through all of that to come to this country, we must be a pretty great country."

For more information, visit congressof racialequality.org or call 633-4464.

View reporter Jan Hogan contributed to this story. Contact Sunrise/Whitney View reporter F. Andrew Taylor at ataylor@viewnews.com or 380-4532.

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