Communities like Glen Cove thrive with the selfless nature of volunteers like Elizabeth Comitino. Born in New York City to Puerto Rican parents, the 90-year-old has spent much of her life volunteering for many different programs ranging from the Youth Bureau, Cub and Girl Scouts to various services with St. Patrick’s Church as a literacy teacher for those seeking American citizenship. The later program has been one of her most in-demand acts of kindness.
For over 30 years she's had much success, with 900 of her students passing the American citizenship test. Although she’s stopped holding the program due to the coronavirus pandemic, people continue to ask her when she will resume the program.
As the oldest of nine children, Comitino developed her kind nature as a child.
“When I was younger, I always liked helping people,” Comitino said. “That was my thing.”
Cynthia Banos, director of Hispanic ministry, is also a longtime friend of Comitino and has witnesses many of her acts of kindness. If people needed help with getting clothing, food, or other essentials, Banos said Comitino would always help.
Rev. Dom Gabriel Rach, who has known Comitino for over 10 years, said that she’s the kind of person that will come up a stranger just to say hello. Comitino is also well known for her dry sense of humor.
“Every pastor can think of a dozen people that just have seemingly been there forever," Rach said. "And it's just hard to imagine them not being around. Certainly, Elizabeth fits into that category.”
Initially, Comitino didn’t plan to teach the American citizenship courses. But residents reached out to her for help through the church’s outreach program. When she saw her community was in need, she knew she had to act. Comitino spent her own money and time buying books, creating lesson plans and teaching the class herself once a week for two hours in the evenings in the church.
Becoming an American citizen can
be challenging, especially for those who can’t read or write English proficiently. The process can take up to five years and is a daunting multi-step process. Firstly, all applicants must determine if they’re eligible for citizenship. Then an N400 form must be filed with a $725 application fee included.
Then an applicant must submit biometrics, such as fingerprints and photos. After they complete an interview process, they take the citizenship test, and wait for a decision. Before the interview begins, applicants will swear to tell the truth. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Officer will then ask about their background, character, place and length of residence, ability to answer civic questions and willingness to take the Oath of Allegiance.
Applicants need to be completely honest during their citizenship interview. If an officer discovers that an applicant has lied on purpose, they could deny the application, or even begin deportation proceedings. If they’re accepted, they take an oath of allegiance.
The new citizenship test that went into effect in Nov. 2020 is longer than before. Now applicants are required to answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly instead of six out of 10. It is also more complex, eliminating simple geographic questions. Of the 18 questions removed from the previous test, 11 were questions that had simple, often one-word answers. A new question, “Why did the United States enter the Vietnam War?” has one answer that is considered correct, “to stop the spread of Communism.” The test does not take on the issue of the vehement and often violent protests or the huge death toll that resulted from that war.
In the fiscal year of 2021, 813,861 people became naturalized citizens in the United States. This is an increase from the previous year, when 628,254 people became naturalized citizens. This figure that was likely due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
All Comitino’s students approached her with a dream to gain one or more of the many benefits to American citizenship. Once a citizen, her students gained all the rights of American citizenship, including the right to vote, evading deportation and better employment opportunities.
According to newamericancampaign.org, naturalized citizens on average do better economically than noncitizens. As a group they earn between 50 and 70 percent more than noncitizens, have higher employment rates and are less likely to live below the poverty line. New citizens could also see their individual earnings increase from 8 to 11 percent, because they have had more job preparation, better employment matches and a greater ability to switch jobs.
Cynthia Basos’ husband, Jamie Banos, was one of Comitino’s students in 2017. He heard about Comitino's class through a friend at church while working as a landscaper and in a restaurant. Banos joined a group of 20 other students for two years while going through the many steps to citizenship. Banos said he felt like he could talk to Comitino about many things given her courageous personality. He passed his exam and became an American citizen.
“After I became a citizen a lot of opportunities opened for me, to have a better job, to finally have a home, to feel freer to travel to anywhere in the world,” Banos said.
Banos said he didn’t just receive an academic education from Comitino. He felt as though he could approach her with other problems he was dealing with while on the path to citizenship. Through her advice and guidance, Banos now works as a plumber.