New California citizenship campaign targets Asians
Asians aim for 'Ya es hora'-style citizenship push
LOS ANGELES—Inspired by a highly publicized Latino naturalization drive, Asian Americans are fanning out to help immigrants across California—and eventually the country—become U.S. citizens.
Asian American advocates say getting more immigrants to naturalize is crucial to flex the political muscle of the state's fastest-growing ethnic group and give the community a louder voice. And it has become even more pressing since the country ramped up immigration enforcement, making citizenship a requirement to get more government contracts and to avoid deportation if convicted of a crime.
The task is daunting. In California—home to a third of the country's Asian population—dozens of languages are spoken, in addition to dozens of dialects, and myriad often-competing Asian-language media outlets reach diverse segments.
"Everything we have to do is multiple in terms of the amount of resources and effort," said Karin Wang, vice president of programs at the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American Legal Center, which is spearheading the drive.
The campaign—which starts next week with a workshop in the San Gabriel Valley's sizable Chinese and Vietnamese communities— is modeled after the "Ya es hora" citizenship campaign launched by a close-knit partnership between community groups, Spanish-language media giant Univision and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.
That program, which consists of in-person workshops broadcast on television, has helped nearly 40,000 people fill out their naturalization applications and nearly 100,000 get their citizenship questions answered via a bilingual hotline since 2007.
Since then, Wang said she has often fielded questions about why Asian-American advocates can't mount a similar campaign, which led her group to draft a plan to create a naturalization network.
Under the program, Asian-American advocates will host six large-scale workshops across California to offer free assistance in multiple languages filling out naturalization forms. The goal is to initially help several hundred immigrants apply for citizenship, and have local community organizations help hundreds more after getting training from immigration lawyers on how to process the paperwork, said Connie Choi, an attorney with APALC's immigrant rights project.
California is home to about 5 million Asians who account for about 13 percent of the state's population.
Advocates hope to eventually expand the effort to other states with large Asian communities such as Texas, Georgia, Nevada and Ohio, said Karen Narasaki, president of the Washington-based Asian American Justice Center, an APALC affiliate.
Asian immigrants are already more likely to naturalize than Latinos and more than 60 percent become U.S. citizens within a decade of getting a green card, according to 2005 statistics from the Department of Homeland Security.
But advocates say many still need help with forms that are closely scrutinized by immigration officials, especially older immigrants who may have difficulty with English.
Peggy Santis, a 59-year-old Thai immigrant who became a citizen last month, said having someone help fill out the paperwork makes a big difference. The insurance agent from Anaheim applied to naturalize last year after living in this country for decades when she realized she felt like an American.
"It is better to become a citizen," said Santis, who got help filling out the paperwork through a local citizenship program. "You work and you pay taxes and then you don't have a right to vote."
Janelle Wong, a political science professor at the University of Southern California, said once Asian immigrants naturalize, they are relatively high-propensity voters. They are also more likely to get involved in politics in other ways, for example, by contacting their elected officials.
One of the challenges to getting a naturalization or civic engagement campaign off the ground in the Asian-American community is that immigrants often identify more closely with their distinct ethnic background, and often care about different issues, she said.
"The more ground work that is done, the more of a voice they will have in future elections," Wong said. "The only issue is: what will that voice be saying? ... there's not necessarily a shared political agenda across every community."
Advocates say the children and grandchildren of Asian immigrants who arrived after immigration rules were relaxed in the 1960s have a stronger tie to the community beyond their ethnic group since they grew up here and many have married across immigrant groups.
Many immigrants, from all countries, are reluctant to apply to become citizens, fearing their English isn't good enough. Others are thrown off by the $680 expense—often more if they seek help from a lawyer.
Narasaki said Asian-Americans have led naturalization campaigns in the past. In the 1990s, advocates ran a program to help people naturalize when the country scaled back the public benefits available to immigrants.
But they didn't follow up to see what happened after people naturalized. In the California drive—which is funded by $250,000 in private donations—advocates plan to follow up with new U.S. citizens to make sure they are registered to vote.
Asian immigrants have shown a strong interest in learning how to become citizens, though many are skeptical about asking questions of the U.S. government. That's one of the reasons federal authorities rely on community organizations trusted by immigrant communities to help promote naturalization, said Jane Arellano, district director for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in the Los Angeles area.
"That is how we reach our ethnic communities," she said. "They trust their leadership."