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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”