Citizenship drive targets California's Asian-Americans

Volunteer attorney Pancy Lin Misa and Sokly Prom, a volunteer for The Cambodian Family, help a prospective new U.S. citizen fill out naturalization paperwork at a June 2011 citizenship drive in Santa Ana.
Volunteer attorney Pancy Lin Misa and Sokly Prom, a volunteer for The Cambodian Family, help a prospective new U.S. citizen fill out naturalization paperwork at a June 2011 citizenship drive in Santa Ana.
Susan Valot/KPCC

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As the most American of holidays approaches this weekend, several of Southern Califonia's Asian-American groups are trying to close the gap between the number of Asian-Americans who live legally in the United States and the number who become citizens. The citizenship drive began recently with workshops, including one in Santa Ana.

The lobby of The Cambodian Family, a community group in Santa Ana, is a hive of activity. Prospective citizens fill the room as volunteers scurry among them. They help the citizens-to-be fill out forms and explain the U.S. citizenship process in their native language.

The drive is part of a statewide effort to sign on more Asian and Pacific Islander immigrants as U.S. citizens.

Connie Choi is an attorney with the Asian Pacific American Legal Center, the Los Angeles group that’s spearheading the drive. We’re working in six primary regions throughout California: San Francisco/the Bay Area, San Jose, Sacramento, Fresno, Orange County and Los Angeles," Choi says.

"We are doing eligibility screening. We’re doing actual one-on-one application assistance and so we’re helping them fill out the applications. We are providing in-language services so if anybody has questions about, like what’s the entire process, what does that look like? Then we’ll have people on hand to kind of answer those questions," says Choi.

Choi points out nearly 3 million Asian-American and Pacific Islanders in the U.S. are eligible to become citizens or will be eligible soon. But only 276,000 of them naturalized two years ago, the latest year that figures are available.

Choi says her coalition chose to start its citizenship drive in California because the golden state is home to 5 million Asians, about one-third of the country’s Asian population.

"It’s a huge feat to take on because even within the Asian-American community, there’s so many different languages that are spoken," Choi says. "And so to kind of counter that, we’ve partnered with organizations that are in the communities that have the language capacities, that know how to kind of speak to those communities and allay fears, for example, to partner with us because we really can’t do this alone."

Choi says her group hopes partnerships with ethnic organizations will build trust with potential citizens. Many of them arrived from countries with repressive governments, so they fear that applying for U.S. citizenship means the government can track and maybe even deport them.

At the mostly Cambodian language workshop this month in Santa Ana, about 50 people showed up. Some drove from as far as Victorville, 80 miles away.

On the same day, people packed a workshop in Westminster in Vietnamese and an event in Irvine in Chinese and Korean. Choi says the response doesn’t surprise her.

"There’s been such a huge need within the community," Choi says. "And especially when you say, 'We will have, for example, Chinese speakers on hand to answer questions,' that lifts a huge weight off of people’s shoulders, because people are saying, 'OK, well, I can get the correct information, not by word of mouth, but actually from attorneys that are experienced with this.' And so the response has been fantastic."

Truoy Vong of Santa Ana, 77, came to the Cambodian Family workshop to get help. He moved to the U.S. from Cambodia 27 years ago. He tried once and failed the citizenship test. Now he wants to try again.

"Oh I like!" says Vong with a smile before he finishes his thought in his native Khmer language, through a translator. "I come to this country. I love this country. I live in this country. And that’s the reason I want to become a citizen."

That response echoes among many workshop participants who want to apply for citizenship. Chea Lim of The Cambodian Family knows where they’re coming from.

"I was like them," he says, laughing. "I came to America in 1981 and didn’t become citizen until 1997. And, you know, I think because we are here, we are safe, we don’t feel threatened, so we don’t have to be involved in a way."

Lim says for him, this citizenship drive is personal.

"We, myself, we came from Cambodia, and if you are aware of the history, you know, there was a communist, there was oppression, and even the current government does fight democracy," Lim says. "So to be a part of American citizen and can vote, that’s power. You know, that is something that we would like our community to feel like."

He hopes other Asian immigrants throughout the state and beyond will understand, and act upon, that message.