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Fear prevents green card holders from becoming citizens

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The U.S. Naturalization Test — and all of the accompanying costs, can be daunting for immigrants (Eric Gay/2007 AP)
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The notion of a country inviting immigrants to become citizens is a riveting one. It’s the idea of acceptance and inclusion. It’s concern for — and commitment to — a chosen place and its people. It is the building block of pluralism.

So, I’m particularly curious when I hear of green card holders who are eligible but haven’t yet become citizens. These are people who’ve broken down walls, crossed fences, rebuilt careers and pressed the start-over button — but they haven’t taken the leap over the last citizenship hurdle.

I recently attended a media roundtable organized by New America Media, a San Francisco organization that advocates and collaborates with ethnic media outlets. At the event, attended by more than 50 ethnic media representatives, John Kramar, San Francisco District Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said “fear factor” was one of the reasons — perhaps the most common one — for why permanent residents do not become citizens. And fear, he said, takes many shapes. It could be fear of the costs involved, fear of the hidden dangers of changing status, fear of taking the citizenship test or simply the fear of failing the test or interview.

This was partially borne out in my own situation. My 83-year-old mother, who lives with me, became eligible to become a citizen two years ago. She realized the value of citizenship, not the least of which, at her age, is better health benefits. She requested help in studying for the citizenship test. I printed out the study guide, which she very quickly memorized. It became a family activity for us, quizzing her on U.S. presidents and state capitals.

On the day of the interview, as I escorted her in, she looked terrified. Gamely, she walked into the opened door when her name was called. A few minutes later, when she came out, she looked distraught as she whispered she had not passed. When I asked her what happened, she explained she hadn’t understood the interviewer’s accent and found herself unable to respond.

My mother’s is a particular case of “fear.” She reads avidly in English — newspapers, magazines, books and more — but is fearfully shy about speaking the language. Perhaps that weighed into it, too, besides the fact she is a bit hard of hearing.

Yet, to my surprise, she insisted on going through the test again. This time, as she was heading in, she turned to me and declared she was going to succeed. I nodded my head and sat in the waiting room, anxious and ready to console her. This time, it took longer, but when she came out, my mother smiled at me. Since then, she has looked at her U.S. passport innumerable times and is all set this year to vote for her favorite candidate, Hillary Clinton.

It is clear the possibilities far outweigh the perils. Yet, the Center for Migration Studies puts the number of green card holders eligible to become citizens in the U.S. at 8,616,000. In San Francisco alone, there are 51,130 people who have not yet naturalized.

Melissa Rodgers, project director of S.F.’s New Americans Campaign, a nonpartisan coalition to make citizenship accessible, says there are 51,130 people who could be engaged in the political process in our city. They could be voting in “local elections that directly impact the lives of communities such as the Board of Supervisors, the school board, the mayor.”

That’s the size of San Francisco’s untapped eligible immigrant potential.Hoang Truong, a Vietnamese immigrant who recently became a citizen, was one of the speakers at the media roundtable. He had a long list of reasons to become a citizen written on a sheet of paper. Truong put the paper down and announced he was going to speak from his heart. He said becoming a citizen gave him “the key to the higher education door, the key to freedom, the key to vote, the key to do whatever we want.”

Immigrants are one of the most intrepid groups in our society. They are risk-takers. They readily embrace displacement and chaos for the benefits of opportunity. They use fear as an impetus instead of as a deterrent. Hence, hesitating before taking the last step to a secure life in this chosen city seems somewhat surprising.

Though I can well imagine that the road was tough, permanent residents have already had five years of attunement to a new environment. The fear of cultural accommodation cannot be a consideration at this point.

So I’d like to tell all 51,130 legal permanent residents of San Francisco that this is their moment. Being an eligible green card holder is like consenting to marriage, but not setting the date. Citizenship is both a privilege and a promise. It’s a commitment to a new life and its choices and challenges. It’s now time to take this land as your land.

Jaya Padmanabhan is the editor of India Currents, www.indiacurrents.com. She can be reached at editor@indiacurrents.com. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

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