New America Media, Video,
LOS ANGELES-- After 14 years in the United States, Jenny Young, who came from Korea, finally got her citizenship. Soon after her citizenship ceremony in January, Young registered to vote.
“After I got my citizenship, I can vote. That is the best thing of my life,” said Young, adding that she’s now paying more attention to current events and politics to keep herself informed as a new voter.
The 49-year-old woman came to the United States in 1997 as a foreign student studying English. After two years in a community college in Los Angeles, Young realized there are more opportunities for her in this country than in Korea, and she decided to stay. She started working for a clothing company that sponsored her work permit, and eventually she got green card in 2003.
In the years after, Young worked towards her dream to become a small business owner. She started a coffee shop, operated under the franchise Kelly’s Coffee and Fudge Factory. Today, Young owns two coffee shops in the Los Angeles area.
However, despite her rapid success in building her career, Young waited three years on her naturalization. Just like many other first generation immigrants, Young did not know where to start.
“Nobody told me [anything],” said Young, noting that her attempts to get help from Korean American community organizations proved frustrating after she got “different answers” to her questions.
Young finally sought help from the Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California. An attorney there guided her through the naturalization process, and Young said it was actually simpler than she thought.
Young was not the only one who delayed the application for U.S. citizenship.
More than 800,000 Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in California are eligible for citizenship but not yet naturalized, according to a 2008 report by Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees.
“If we even got half of [them naturalized], we could change the whole electorate landscape of California,” said Stewart Kwoh, president and executive director of Asian Pacific American Legal Center of Southern California (APALC), a long time legal services provider and a civil rights organization for Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI).
Citing 2010 Census data, Kwoh said, AAPIs are the fastest growing group in California, making up 15.5 percent of state’s population, but the presidential election in 2008 indicated that only 10 percent of the electorate was AAPI. In other words, Kwoh said, there is a huge civic engagement gap between the actual AAPI representation in the state and its electorate.
To close the gap, the Asian American & Pacific Islander Naturalization Network (AAPINN) has launched a statewide campaign to encourage Asian American and Pacific Islander immigrants in California to become citizens, as a first step to becoming registered voters. The network consists of Kwoh’s group APALC and other statewide AAPI community-based organizations.
A key part of the campaign, Kwoh said, is to organize six citizenship workshops between now and November in Los Angeles, Sacramento, Orange County, San Jose, Fresno, and San Francisco. At the all-day sessions, immigration attorneys, legal experts and language support personnel will be present to provide counseling and help immigrants fill out their paperwork.
APALC staff attorney Connie Choi said workshops would be very helpful in addressing the three main obstacles for AAPI to gain citizenship--language barriers, limited access to affordable legal services, and the high fees - because legal services would be provided in multiple Asian languages and free of charge. Individuals would also be screened to see if they qualify for any fee waivers and exemptions.
Choi said immigrants who receive federal benefits, or live below federal poverty guidelines, or who could prove financial hardship, could apply for a fee waiver.
Choi reminded green card holders that under the current anti-immigrant climate, there are some benefits to citizenship, including access to public services that are being scaled back for green card holders, and avoiding deportation.
“But I think the main reason is people want to become fully integrated into the American society,” she said. “They want to give back to their community.”
The first citizenship workshop will be held on March 26 at Rosemead Community Center in San Gabriel Valley, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.