Citizenship Collaborative Opens Doors for New Voters

Opportunity - Community Fully Connected - 1

This post was written by Sara Campos and Tessa Rouverol Callejo on the Foundation’s Immigrant Integration Fund team. Click here to read more posts about our ongoing efforts to support immigrant integration.

Making an Iron Tree Blossom

“When I put my pen on the paper to mark my choice, I felt very proud to be there and to be able to vote,” said Jin Lan Kuang, a new citizen and voter. “Now that I have voted I feel included and honored. Now it isn’t only a piece of paper that says I’m a citizen. I feel I belong.”

Jin Lan and her husband, both in their seventies, arrived in San Francisco from the Chinese province of Guangdong five years ago. Unable to speak the language, they had to rely on their daughter for financial support and worried about the burdens they were imposing on their daughter. In 2009, the couple enrolled in a citizenship class and began studying English at Self Help for the Elderly. With increased language skills, Ms. Kuang was able to find a job and gained the confidence to seek citizenship.

In early 2014, the Kuangs participated in a naturalization workshop organized by the San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship, a collaborative supported by The San Francisco Foundation (TSFF). And, in July 2014, both passed the citizenship test. They subsequently registered to vote, and after reading the Chinese newspapers to learn more about the issues, the Kuangs voted for the first time on Election Day. They credit the collaborative for helping them attain their goals.

In 2012, TSFF met with several funders and later with the San Francisco Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) to discuss the need for a large-scale citizenship campaign. Together the group reviewed Census data revealing remarkably high numbers of diverse immigrants eligible for citizenship in the city.

“Approximately 100,000 lawful permanent residents were eligible, but had not naturalized,” said Tessa Rouverol Callejo, FAITHS Program and Civic Engagement Officer, “An eighth of the population stood at the sidelines unable to vote or participate fully in American life.”

In collaboration with four funders, TSFF and the Office of Civic Engagement and Immigrant Affairs (OCEIA) organized a three-year citizenship project, taking their blueprint from existing naturalization collaboratives in the East and South Bay as well as from the New Americans Campaign, a national project in several cities across the U.S. However, the mix of public and private funding along with the city’s rich diversity, have created a project that’s uniquely San Franciscan.

The San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship team meets regularly to coordinate citizenship fairs in local neighborhoods as well as produce an annual mega-workshop at the Bill Graham Civic Center Auditorium. Potential citizens receive orientation, advice, and process their citizenship applications. Unlike other collaboratives that organize workshops one language at a time, the San Francisco Project invites people from all ethnic backgrounds and languages to come together. With the help of hundreds of volunteers, it provides services in over two-dozen languages.

They also process a sizeable number of fee waivers for people like the Kuangs who cannot afford the $680 application fees. A recent workshop in June 2014 attracted over 2400 potential citizens. This year, the project reached hundreds of potential citizens, conducted seven workshops, and completed over 1500 applications.

San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship provides tremendous community services and operates as efficiently as a well-oiled machine,” said Eric Cohen, naturalization expert and Executive Director of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center (ILRC).

Citizenship not only integrates new citizens into the fold of American life, but studies also show that citizenship boosts immigrant earnings and creates stability for immigrant families.

“Naturalization is a boon to communities where immigrants live,” said Eric Cohen.

Anni Chung, the director of Self-Help for the Elderly, leads the collaborative of six additional organizations, all of which have significant experience on naturalization. They include Asians Americans Advancing for Justice/Asian Law Caucus, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, Catholic Charities CYO, International Institute of the Bay Area, the Jewish Family and Children’s Services, and La Raza Resource Center. The following foundations join TSFF and the city and county of San Francisco to support the collaborative: the Asian Pacific Fund, the Alexander Wallace Gerbode Foundation, the Evelyn and Walter Haas Jr. Fund, and the Walter and Elise Haas Fund.

“This project can make an iron tree blossom,” said Han Ming,” Jin Lan’s daughter. “We really appreciate how our government, Self Help for the Elderly, and San Francisco Pathways to Citizenship provide such a valuable service for us and other immigrants. “

The project welcomes volunteers. For more information, contact Anni Chung or Erin Renshaw at Self Help for the Elderly, Volunteer immigration lawyers and people with Chinese and Spanish language skills are especially needed now.

Read other posts about our ongoing efforts to support immigrant integration.