The Portsmouth Square Club House, near Chinatown, was packed with Chinese immigrants who chanted phrases to memorize for their upcoming citizenship test: How many states are there? Who is the Governor of California? What are the stars and stripes? When was the first Constitution drafted?
I was attending a news conference on the occasion of National Citizenship Day at the Club House. I arrived a little early and observed what appeared to be a citizenship class in session.
What was unusual about this group of attendees was that they were all of a certain age. In the first row sat a group of people who held the American flag tightly in their fists, waving it periodically and smiling. Anni Chung, CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, later introduced these front row attendees as those who had already passed their citizenship tests and become citizens of America.
Self-Help for the Elderly, according to its brochure, was originally created in San Francisco’s Chinatown community in 1966 as a “war on poverty program,” but it has since expanded to include other services for the elderly. One of their current programs, in partnership with the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, is helping the elderly tackle citizenship tests.
When the conference began, Chung introduced the panel of speakers, which included Supervisor Aaron Peskin, S.F. District Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services John Kramar, and Chair of the Immigrant Rights Commission Celine Kennelly.
Supervisor Peskin, in his opening remarks, made mention of one of the most important reasons to become a citizen: “to engage in the electoral process.”
Indeed, in the most recent polls conducted by YouGov/Economist from Sept. 10 to Sept. 13, it looks like Hillary Clinton leads by a mere 2 percent, which is within the 3.9 percent margin of error. The race for the White House appears to be neck and neck, and it is has never been more important for the nation’s green card holders to step up and fulfill their obligation of becoming citizens immediately. And then, as citizens, exercising their right to vote.
A new report from the Center for Migration Studies has asserted that there are several categories of eligible people who are remarkably well-placed to become citizens. Out of the 8.6 million people nationwide who were eligible to naturalize in 2013, 78 percent have lived in the United States for more than 10 years; 65 percent speak English well, very well or only English; 74 percent have access to both a computer and the internet; 79 percent earn income above the poverty level; and 72 percent have health insurance.
Come Jan. 21, 2017, we want an informed leader with a good track record to be sitting in the Oval Office, making decisions about immigration, freedom of press, civil discourse, foreign policy and the economic growth of our country. Imagine how even a fraction of the 8.6 million people who are eligible to naturalize can affect the November decision.
At the event, Kramar congratulated the front row attendees and he adjured the others in the room to “apply for citizenship and sit in the front row with your flag.”
No doubt, these front row men and women with silvery heads and bowed bodies were an inspiring reminder of the power of perseverance. Their presence that day seemed to boost the morale of others in the room. It’s no easy task to remember facts and figures that you have not grown up with, especially when memory becomes a casualty of age.
Chung pointed out XiongHui Li, who is 86 years old and was quoted in a news report on June 6, 2014, by Anna Challet of New America Media as saying, “Recently I passed my naturalization test on my first try. I am very happy … Even though I’m 84 now, I feel like I’m 18 again.”
And there was Bai Hai Li, who slowly made his way to the front of the room and told his story in Chinese, which was subsequently translated to English. Li and his wife, Nai Hao Tan, arrived in the U.S. in 2011, at the behest of their son. They were unable to find work because they didn’t speak English. Their son encouraged them to learn English through adult classes. Li did fine, but Tan, who had very little formal education, found it “a monumental task.” Soon after starting classes, Li suffered a stroke, which affected his speech and his memory. This made him despondent, and he stopped his English classes.
Two years ago, a friend who had passed her citizenship test strongly urged the couple to attend citizenship classes with SHE. At SHE, Li and Tan met people who were like them. They felt “especially warm and welcomed.”
At a workshop organized by SFPCI, the couple was able to complete their naturalization and fee waiver application. On June 20, they appeared at their citizenship interview and “because of all the help we received, I was able to pass my test on my first try” claimed Li. Not so, poor Tan, who was “too nervous” and did not succeed in her first attempt. Tan renewed her efforts and appeared for her test once again on August 26, and this time she passed.
As Chung put it, “they just don’t give up. The passing grade is 100 percent. If they fail once, they keep at it!”
If Li and Tan can do it, so can every one else who is eligible.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.