SAN FRANCISCO, CA – San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and other city officials launched an initiative yesterday to push for naturalization among those who are eligible. One in eight San Franciscans are permanent residents, but not naturalized citizens, preventing them from being fully engaged in civic participation, such as voting, city officials said.
“We need to bring voices and communications to hidden communities and unheard communities about Pathways to Citizenship and the benefits of being citizens,” said Lee.
On Tuesday, Mayor Lee, along with Board of Supervisor President David Chiu and members of more than a dozen local nonprofits and foundations, gathered at the mayor’s office to unveil the city’s Pathways To Citizenship Initiative—a three-year pilot program to push for naturalization among those who are eligible.
Lee said he wants to be as inclusive as possible when decisions are made on issues such as education, health care, public transportation and public safety. Given that one-third of San Francisco’s population is made up of immigrants, Lee said he’s worried some of their voices are lost because of their non-citizen status. There are 100,000 permanent residents in the city not fully participating in the political process because they are not citizens, he noted.
The imitative is a public-private program with a budget of $1.2 million over the course of three years. Half of the funding comes from the city’s general fund through the Office of Civic Engagement & Immigrant Affairs, while the other half comes from local foundations.
The funding will be channeled to seven local community-based organizations to promote citizenship by providing counseling, training, language support and legal services to immigrants.
The idea for the program arose when a group of nonprofit leaders first came to together to prepare for the 2010 Census. The city’s population has always been undercounted, especially among immigrant neighborhoods, affecting levels of funding for social service and other programs. Ed Lee, then city administrator, worked with local partners to create effective and culturally competent messages to promote the Census.
However, being counted is just the first step, the planning group’s long-term goal is to enhance civic participation.
Dr. Sandra R. Hernandez, chief executive officer of The San Francisco Foundation, a planning group member, says she sees the project as a way to promote democracy in the city. Growing up in an immigrant household whose father voted in every election after becoming a citizen, Hernandez says, she knows intimately how gaining the right to vote encourages civic participation among immigrants.
“We need to engage every citizen to make our democracy better,” said Hernandez. “It is a fundamental part of our city life to do so.”
Other than voting rights, Hernandez pointed out that there are other benefits, such as access to certain federally-funded social services, employment opportunities, immigration sponsorship and travel flexibility, that apply to citizens only. The San Francisco Foundation is one of the six philanthropic organizations funding the pilot program.
However, the path to citizenship can be a daunting experience, especially for those who face language barriers.
79-year-old Su Fang Gao immigrated to San Francisco from Shanghai, China in 2006 through her daughter’s sponsorship. Like many senior immigrants, she is monolingual in Chinese and finds it very difficult to study for the naturalization test while learning English at her age.
According to United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), there are only two scenarios in which elders can take the naturalization test in their native languages. They are either green card holders who are at least 50 years old and have lived in the county for 20 years, or those who are at least 55 years old and have lived in the country for 15 years.
Gao and many of her classmates do not qualify. Gao said she has studied English for two years now and plans to take the naturalization test before the end of this year.
“America is a great country, I want to become a citizen,” she said.
Apart from the test itself, the expensive application fee for naturalization is another obstacle, said Anni Chung, executive director of Self-Help for the Elderly, a member of the planning group and a nonprofit organization serving predominantly low-income Asian seniors. “Many of our seniors live on SSI (Supplemental Security Income) and have to make tough choices between putting food on table and becoming citizens,” she said.
The current application fee for naturalization is $680 dollars. It jumped from $320 dollars in 2007, while the monthly SSI is $710 dollars for an individual and $1,066 for a couple.
“A fee waiver is available for low income families but not many people know about it,” said Chung, adding that the new city initiative helps bring resources to outreach programs as well as provides legal counseling.
Claudia Rodriguez became a citizen earlier this year. She said she would not have filled out the naturalization application without the help of her case manager, Clarisa Sanchez, at Catholic Charities CYO. “It was a long form,” said Rodriguez, adding that it was daunting to her even though she has been studying English since 2001 and is a certified nurse assistant working in the city.
Rodriguez said the encouragement and legal support she received from a trusted local organization was key to her success in becoming a U.S. citizen.
Coming to the country as an undocumented transgender woman from Mexico in 1999, Rodriguez has struggled through discrimination, financial hardship and a decade long immigration process, which included applying for asylum to finally receiving her green card in 2005.
She said becoming a citizen is a milestone in her life. She finally feels her voice counts and she knows her rights. “I feel I am more confident and I have a new life beginning,” she said. Rodriguez is now studying at City College of San Francisco part-time to become a registered nurse.
Other local nonprofits participating in the initiative include Asian Law Caucus, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Catholic Charities CYO, International Institute of the Bay Area, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and La Raza Community Resource Center.
*This story is re-published with permission from New America Media.