JAE Koo (Jerry) Chang left Korea for the United States in early 1980’s, seeking better economic opportunities for himself and his family. For the next 30 years he built a new life in Los Angeles, starting his own dry cleaning business and raising his two daughters with his wife.
As a lawful permanent resident, Jerry’s life was busy but fairly uneventful, although he felt the sting of occasional discrimination and felt limited by his inability to vote. But he was so busy working all those years that he never became a citizen.
In September 2014, Jerry finally decided it was time. After living for decades with his green card, he realized that the United States was his home — both physically and emotionally — and he wanted to have the right to vote. Jerry started attending a free ESL/civics class my organization offered, hoping to leave nothing to chance in the naturalization interview.
Even though Jerry qualified to take the exam in his native language, Korean, because of his age and his many years in the US, he felt passionately that he should take and pass the interview in English, the language of his adopted home.
After seven months in our program and with additional assistance from our citizenship attorneys, Jerry proudly joined the ranks of new US citizens.
The road is not an easy one for many immigrants like Jerry, who face barriers and challenges to becoming US citizens. Without help along the way, many immigrants never make it to the citizenship ceremony.
Nationwide, 2.33 million lawful permanent residents of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage are eligible to become citizens right now.
We are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States. About 60 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were born outside of this country. Census data from 2013 reveal that China has replaced Mexico as the top country of origin for immigrants to the United States — an eye-opening statistic.
That’s why my organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles, is part of a groundbreaking national network called the New Americans Campaign, which is paving a better road to citizenship for the country’s 8.8 million lawful permanent residents who are citizenship-eligible.
Together with more than 100 partners across the country, we help modernize and streamline access to naturalization services for eligible immigrants like Jerry, so that more of them are able to become American citizens.
Los Angeles itself is home to an increasing number of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. It also is home to one of eight Promise Zones identified across the US, where the federal government is working with local leaders to increase economic activity, improve educational opportunities, reduce violent crime and enhance public health.
The L.A. Promise Zone covers portions of East Hollywood and Koreatown and is home to 17 percent of the city’s Korean population. Within this zone, 61 percent of residents are foreign born, and 30 percent have become US citizens. Jerry lives in this Promise Zone and attended classes at a local public library on its outskirts.
Mayor Eric Garcetti has committed to bringing more naturalization resources into the Promise Zone, which would only boost the efforts of partnerships such as those established by the New Americans Campaign. Through such initiatives, more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders like Jerry can receive the support they need to apply for and achieve citizenship.
After Jerry became a US citizen in March, he wanted to give back to his community and his neighborhood. He’s starting by volunteering with Advancing Justice – LA, at his former ESL/Civics class, to empower other immigrants on their path to citizenship.
For Jerry and other immigrants from Asia and the Pacific islands, becoming a US citizen is a key step toward being able to fully participate in the country they have come to consider their home. As a nation’s immigrant face evolves, we need more programs like those offered by Advancing Justice – LA and the New Americans Campaign, programs that are able to reach and serve new and diverse communities.
And we need more Jerry Changs, immigrants whose hard-earned citizenship and its concurrent rights are something that those of us born here take too easily for granted.
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Stewart Kwoh is the founding president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles (AAAJ – LA). He is a nationally recognized leader and expert in race relations, civil rights and legal services, and nonprofit organizations and philanthropies. For more information on the New Americans Campaign, go to: newamericanscampaign.org.