THE PATH TO CITIZENSHIP
This story is part of an ongoing series in which The San Francisco Examiner will follow immigrants as they go through the process of becoming naturalized U.S. citizens
Huifang Xing, 68, showed up to a recent naturalization workshop on her own volition, hoping it would one day lead to a voter registration card.
“I like America,” Xing told The San Francisco Examiner in Cantonese. “I want to vote. I like freedom.”
The Guangdong, China, native moved to San Francisco four years and eight months ago on a green card that her youngest daughter helped her obtain. In one month — 90 days before her five-year anniversary here — Xing will be eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. On Dec. 6, accompanied by a friend who also wants to be naturalized, Xing received free assistance in filling out Form N-400, the application for naturalization.
The workshop at the University of San Francisco is one of six sponsored this year under the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, a three-year partnership the Mayor's Office launched in July 2013 with the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs, seven community organizations that provide naturalization services and five philanthropic foundations.
Similar programs already existed in the South Bay, East Bay and North Bay, so there was an urge to provide the services in San Francisco as well, said Anni Chung, CEO of Self-Help for the Elderly, the lead service agency in the pathways initiative. The initiative was designed to provide at least $400,000 for services in each of the three years.
There are an estimated 102,000 legal permanent residents living or working in The City who may be eligible for citizenship, according to the Mayor's Office.
“We have worked on this project for over a year and we think for many of the low- and moderate-income families and households, paying the $680 application per person is a big barrier,” Chung said. “Also, the N-400 form is over 20 pages, so when people have legal issues, they think they can't deal with it. Particularly for those who don't speak English, it's a huge barrier to overcome psychologically and physically, so they just put it aside.”
The initiative has proved successful so far. In its first year, more than 70 percent of the roughly 1,500 people who went through the naturalization workshop became U.S. citizens, according to callback tracking six months later, Chung said.
The goal of the second year is to help 2,000 San Francisco and Bay Area legal permanent residents get their applications ready, and 2,500 the following year.
While the initiative is enabling more legal permanent residents in San Francisco become naturalized, the service organizations are preparing to help the other pool — undocumented immigrants — in light of President Barack Obama's immigration accountability executive action Nov. 20.
Under the executive action, people who fall into two main categories can apply to receive a Social Security number, driver's license and work permit, and defer their deportation for three years. They include people who entered the U.S. before Jan. 1, 2010, and before they turned 16 years old; and people who have lived in the country prior to Jan. 1, 2010, are undocumented and are the parents of U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. Paperwork will be available in mid-February for those in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, and in mid-May for the program for parents.
Nationwide, between 4 million and 5 million people are undocumented immigrants. In the Bay Area, there are 386,947, the Immigrant Legal Resource Center reported early this month. San Francisco has an estimated 12,000 undocumented immigrants.
The day after Obama's announcement, Mayor Ed Lee released an executive directive calling for the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs to plan and oversee a citywide effort to align programs in San Francisco with Obama's executive action.
And on Dec. 8, while attending a mayors immigration summit in New York City, Lee authorized $500,000 in new funding for the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs intended to strengthen efforts to implement Obama's administrative relief. The mayor also announced that the pathways initiative would be extended through June 2019, and that he would continue the DreamSF Initiative to assist youth in pursuing the DACA program through December 2019.
For the time being, service organizations can make a difference through the pathways initiative. On Dec. 6, more than 65 individuals went through the stations — screening, language assessment, form filling and legal review — with language assistance in Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog and Vietnamese.
Among the volunteers was Cesar Sanchez, 43, who came to San Francisco from Guatemala in 2004, applied for citizenship through a workshop with La Raza Community Resource Center last spring and became a U.S. citizen in September.
“The time spent at the workshop really expedites the application process if the person has all the required paperwork, because it takes you step-by-step,” Sanchez said in Spanish. “Becoming a citizen makes life easier in the future because you have more benefits.”
People of all sorts received assistance, including Irma Mendoza, 39, who is homeless. Mendoza said she moved to San Francisco 25 years ago from Nicaragua but did not find out until 2006 when her mother passed away that she was not a U.S. citizen. Currently transitioning into housing and looking for a job, Mendoza finally decided to pursue naturalization instead of simply renewing her green card.
“Today, I got across a lot of the burdens that were stopping me from doing the application,” she said, explaining she has attended a couple workshops before but did not have all the required paperwork.
Three more workshops are planned for this yearly cycle of the initiative — in January, March and a mega-event in June to assist some 2,000 prospective applicants. Among the benefits is a waiver for the $680 fee if they can prove they receive public benefits like Medi-Cal or food stamps.
"I'm very happy and relieved because I have no money besides what my daughter gives me,” Xing said after going through the process. “If I had someone else fill it out, it would be $60. That's a lot of money.”