Helene Burnett talks about her husband Robert on Friday at her home in Clovis. Burnett, who was born is Germany, is still waiting for her U.S. Citizenship. CNJ staff photo: Eric Kluth.
By Jack King
Helene Burnett followed her husband Robert from Wackernheim, Germany, to postings throughout the United States. She took care of their five children while he served two tours in Vietnam.
Three of their offspring — their son Roy and their grandsons Michael and Robert — have served in the U.S. Armed Forces and today her grandchildren tell her, “Grandma, you’re more patriotic than we are!”
She first applied for U.S. citizenship in 1996. She is still waiting for an answer from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service.
“I feel like I’m a U.S. citizen, but I can’t vote,” she said. “At 66, I would like to vote.”
Spokesmen for the CIS and for the office of U.S. Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., said the hold-up seems to be bureaucratic.
Ironically for a woman who says Sept. 11, 2001, made her more determined than ever to be an American, part of the delay in granting Burnett citizenship comes from heightened security since that day, officials said.
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Helene Ridle grew up in Ingelheim, a town on Germany’s Rhine River. She met Robert Burnett — a Clovis native — in 1955, when he was an Army private stationed at the Wackernheim Army base. They married in 1956. When Burnett was transferred back to the United States, she went with him, but within nine months they were returned to Germany.
Helene said her husband loved Germany and they stayed there for several tours of duty. All but one of their children — Monica, who was born in Arkansas in 1965 — were born there.
During their time in her home country the question of changing her citizenship was much less of an issue. Back in the United States, while Robert served in Vietnam from 1968 to 1969 and from 1971 to 1972, she hardly had time think about it, she said.
“I don’t really know why I didn’t request citizenship then. I guess with having five children I was pretty busy,” she said. “But I always knew I wanted to stay here.”
After Robert retired in 1976, the Burnetts moved to Clovis, where he died in 1980. Helene said the older she got, the more she wanted to be a U.S. citizen.
“Then in 1996 I lost my immigration card. (The immigration service) told me I could either pay them $96 to get a new card or pay them $96 to become a citizen. I said, ‘I want to be a citizen,’” she said.
In June 1996 Burnett went with her sister, Giselle Powers, to what was then the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in El Paso to fill out the necessary paperwork. She said personnel there told her the process should take no longer than 12 months.
In January 2002, with still no answer, Burnett contacted Udall’s office. Peter Wells, an aide in Udall’s Rio Rancho office, said several aspects of Burnett’s case may be causing the process to take an unusually long time.
“She married a U.S. citizen, then she decided to file for citizenship after his death. She passed her citizenship test in May 2003 and that was the date they requested her security check. They are currently running seven to 17 months behind,” Wells said.
Chris Bentley, a CIS spokesman, said the service has developed a backlog of cases in the time since Sept. 11, 2001. But it makes no apologies for checking and double checking the records of applicants.
“We’re living in a different world now and we’re trying to be sure we don’t let in people who want to do us harm,” he said.
Wells also said Burnett moved from one home in Clovis to another after making her 1996 application without notifying the immigration department. He said that might have been the error that first complicated the application process. Bentley agreed the move might have created a problem, since both lawful permanent residents and temporary visitors are required to notify the immigration department within 10 days of a move.
Burnett said Friday she was dismayed at the idea her 1996 move from West 17th Street in Clovis to Arcineiga Drive in Clovis could have been such a problem. She said she left a forwarding address with the Post Office.
But, she said, if the delay is because the CIS is protecting this country from harm, she understands. Born in 1938, she can remember what it was like to huddle in a bomb shelter with her family while Germany was at war.
“When young people complain about this country, I tell them they should be grateful. I say, ‘Be happy you’ve never had to go through what I did.’ People never know what they have until they lose it,” she said.