Forming A Citizen

How a company HR department helped make an employee’s dream possible.

By Steve Horton

Finally, after more than a year of preparation, Maha Thor appeared before U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank in a St. Paul, Minnesota courtroom on a Wednesday afternoon in November, 2017.  Judge Frank had just delivered a stirring message to the 50 citizenship applicants seated before him. The judge spoke of the responsibilities of citizenship, of community service, and of helping others.

The Star-Spangled Banner played in the background. Small American flags were handed out. Family members sat in anticipation of ringing applause. The entire scene was patriotic and perfect.

U.S. District Judge Donovan W. Frank and Maha Thor at the St. Paul, MN Courthouse on Wednesday, November 15, 2017.

Upon the Judge’s order, the group stood, raised their hands, and collectively recited the Naturalization Oath of Allegiance to the United States:

“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.”

Then, in that instant, Maha became an American citizen, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto.  It was not difficult to see the joy in Maha’s face as admired his freshly-minted Certificate of Citizenship. Clearly, this was a big deal. Especially in his case.

Escaping War

Once the great Kingdom of a Million Elephants Under the White Parasol, the country of Maha’s birth, Laos, had become a bona fide war zone by the mid-1960s. The Vietnam conflict, still in its early stages, had begun to spill over into neighboring countries.  Viet Cong militias formed bases and supply depots on Laotian territories.

Hmong fighters collaborated with American soldiers to combat the communist invasion of Laos in the 1960’s.

The United States, deeply concerned about the spread of Communism, sent American B-52s over Laos in 1964, targeting Viet Cong installations and supply lines. Over the next nine years, an estimated two million tons of U.S. ordinance fell on Laotian farms, roads, and, sadly, people.

Concurrently, a civil war had erupted between the pro-U.S. Royal Lao Government and the Marxist-Leninist Pathet Lao party. Despite U.S. assistance, the Royals fell.  The Pathet Lo Communist regime assumed power and remains to this day.

Pathet Lo, aware that Hmong communities in Laos had assisted the American CIA against the Viet Cong, began a campaign of human rights violations against the Hmong.  An ethnic minority, the Hmong had little local support and few options.

To make matters worse, tons of unexploded ordnance lie buried in Laotian farmland, just waiting for an innocent shovel or plow to detonate. Life had become difficult and dangerous, with no light at the end of the tunnel. Many Hmong families wanted out.

The family of Maha Thor, age two, was no exception.

Seizing Opportunity

Maha’s family ended up in St. Paul, where manufacturing companies like Ajax are thriving and in need of qualified people.

In 1986, Maha’s parents gathered him up, along with his two brothers and four sisters, and joined hundreds of thousands of Hmong who would emigrate to a welcoming, sometimes contrite, America.  The family ended up in St. Paul, where the current Hmong population exceeds 70,000.  Being industrious and law abiding by nature, the family began to prosper.

Through a company-paid training program, Maha learned how to operate advanced metal forming machinery that produces Ready-Track framing, used by builders to create curved walls.

Fast forward to 2015.  Maha sought employment as soon as he was legally able to earn a paycheck.  After several low-wage positions at various companies, he learned of a paid manufacturing internship at Ajax Metal Forming Solutions of Fridley, Minnesota.  Ajax, growing and in need of good people, was facing the same HR issue that many Minnesota manufacturing companies grapple with on a regular basis: open positions with few qualified applicants.

By then heavily invested in workforce development programs, Ajax had a ready training path for a worker such as Maha.  Once he began to show promise on the manufacturing floor and demonstrate excellent work habits, the HR team at Ajax decided to couple his internship with a company-paid learning program at Anoka Technical College.

Maha did not disappoint.  He soaked up the material at Anoka Tech, much of it very technical, and earned excellent grades while continuing to impress his mentors on the job. The win-win of company sponsored workforce development was once again evident.

Fast forward two years. These days Maha, now 34, operates a complex line of steel forming and stamping machinery that produces Ready-Track construction framing products for Ajax customer Radius Track Corporation of Minneapolis. Maha’s career plan is working out for both him and his employer.

Credit Maha for seizing an opportunity and making the most of it.  Credit Ajax for knowing how to spot and develop manufacturing talent.  Credit Anoka Tech for being willing and able to gear learning programs to fit hand-in-glove with a local manufacturer’s HR needs.

The Next Step: Citizenship

Throughout the tumultuous 2016 presidential campaign, members of Maha’s family disagreed often about candidates and issues. “We finally made a bet on who would be elected president,” Maha said. “The winning side got a lobster dinner.”

Later Maha began to think about becoming eligible to vote. But voting meant becoming an American citizen. That, Maha learned, is no small thing.

Among the hurdles Maha cleared to become eligible for U.S. citizenship were 1) a one hundred-question naturalization test covering U.S. government, history and civics, 2) becoming fluent in English, and 3) passing a citizenship interview that included a very thorough background check.

The naturalization test was not easy; most Americans would not receive a passing score without serious study and memorization.  Also, the test is oral, which makes the test much more difficult than, for example, a printed multiple-choice test. The civics test is administered by a United States Citizenship and Immigration Service. USCIS officers will ask each applicant 10 of the 100 civics questions on the study guide.  Here are a few examples from the test:

  • The idea of self-government is in the first three words of the Constitution. What are these words?
  • What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
  • Who was President during World War I?

An applicant must answer 6 out of the 10 questions correctly. Not all applicants pass on their first attempt. But Maha nailed it. It felt good.

A Company Sponsor

Giving a boost to career-track employees who seek citizenship.

Although he grew up in a Hmong-speaking household, Maha’s English is quite good. That made things much easier. But there are other obstacles – not the least of which being costs – that must be managed.  Ajax stepped in to pay 50 percent of Maha’s one-time $940 USCIS application and testing fees.

A side benefit of citizenship is that Maha will no longer pay for permanent resident (Green Card) renewal fees. His Green Card enabled Maha to legally live and work in the US, and made him eligible for USCIS naturalization, but the card renewal fees, currently $730, are steep for a young family.

Then there’s the test preparation, involving mostly memorization. Maha’s Ajax colleagues were his study partners, spending time quizzing him and answering his questions. The company also provided him with time off for testing and interviews.  Plus lots of encouragement.

Curt Jasper, head of HR at Ajax, oversees the naturalization process for company employees. “We encourage our employees who are Green Card holders to consider the USCIS naturalization process,” he said. “We view citizenship as another career growth step, part of the continual learning process that we want all our employees to undertake.”  Jasper said Ajax affixes a ‘Made in America” flag sticker on shipping containers sent to customers worldwide.

Maha at the Edward J. Devitt courtroom in the St. Paul courthouse. Devitt was chief judge of the Minnesota district from 1959 to 1981.

The Future

Maha and his wife, Vue Yang, have five kids, three boys and two girls.  Like Maha, Vue was also born in Laos.  Although they both grew up in the same St. Paul neighborhood, they did not meet until much later.  “We met at a 4th of July celebration,” Maha said.

Maha likes his work and feels that his career will continue to grow at Ajax. “Ajax is a great place to work,” he said. “The experience is very motivating.  Management cares about what happens to you.”

Maha will enjoy the benefits of citizenship for the rest of his life. So will his family. Maha will be able to acquire a passport and travel much more freely. In addition to voting rights, he can now run for office. College scholarships and federal aid grants for his kids’ education will be much easier to obtain.

And, his citizenship is permanent. Green Cards can get revoked for a variety of reasons, even when the holder is not at fault.

But what makes Maha feel best about his decision is his newfound sense of belonging.  He is now a bona fide member of the community where he lives and works.