How immigrants are redefining 'American' in Southern California

Bilingual classes gives older immigrants better shot at citizenship

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In the civics class she teaches in a Koreatown library, Theresa Jung speaks in Korean before switching seamlessly to English. 

"What is this "D" word?" Jung said, gesturing to a page in the textbook. "Democracy!"

The students - mostly in their 50s and 60s – murmured the word. Jung could tell it was hard for some students to say, and tried to loosen them up.

"Say it one more time, Korean-version," Jung said. 

"Demo-crush!" several students said in unison, laughing. 

Jung's class is part of a newly-launched program to teach English and civics to immigrants in Los Angeles County with limited English skills.

Asian Americans Advancing Justice plans to reach 600 Korean and Chinese immigrants using a two-year, $250,000 grant from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Aside from the $680 application fee, language is the biggest barrier for immigrants considering naturalization, said Nasim Khansari, who oversees the program for AAAJ.

"We’ve seen so many of our clients who have been lawful permanent residents for 10, 15, 20, 25 years," Khansari said.

She said the new classes fill a big void: few classes in the LA area cater to people who speak Asian languages. Naturalization preparation is more apt to be taught by people fluent in Spanish. 

Because older Asian immigrants often need more help with English than younger ones, enrollment in the 15-week program has been trending middle-aged and up. 

Khansari said it's very important for permanent residents of any age to seek citizenship. Among the many perks are the right to vote, the ability to petition relatives to come to the US, easier access to public benefits and protection from deportation, she said.

"There’s a lot more security that comes with being a naturalized citizen as opposed to being a green card holder," Khansari said.

UCLA immigration and citizenship law professor Hiromi Motomura said that some immigrants put off seeking citizenship because they think that one day they may return to the home country.

His late mother, who had emigrated to the US in her 20s, did not become naturalized until she was around 70.

"It took a little bit of soul-searching on her part for her to realize it was OK for her emotionally to declare her allegiance to the United States and give up her Japanese passport," Motomura said.

For Chung Han, the main reason to become a citizen is that it's his duty.

"I want to live here so I have to get the citizen right," Han said.

At 76, the retired civil engineer is one of the oldest in the civics class, but he is one of the more recent arrivals. Han moved to the US in 2011 to be closer to daughters who live in Glendale and Fullerton. He plans to apply for citizenship as soon as he's allowed - once he hits the five year-mark as a permanent resident.

His wife also joined the class, but dropped out after finding it too difficult, even with a bilingual instructor, he said.

Han spoke slowly but clearly during an exercise in which students practiced English conversation on familiar topics.

Han’s partner asked him about the South Korean national anthem, and if he can sing it. 

Han replied, "Of course, I can," and launched into a rendition of "Aegukga."

By the time the course is over, he'll know about the Star-Spangled Banner, too. 

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