ROCKVILLE, MARYLAND —
Soo Yee moved to the U.S. from South Korea in 2000. Only later, after she became a U.S. citizen, was she allowed to sponsor her parents and bring them to the U.S., too. Now they live with her at her Virginia home.
"Without their support, it's difficult for me to work. ... I wouldn't be here on a Saturday morning," Yee said. She is founder of the Korean American Outreach Group and on this recent Saturday, she was volunteering to help other Asian immigrants with green cards apply for naturalization.
The naturalization process, which takes an average of six months, gives qualified new Americans the right to vote, a U.S. passport, and even the opportunity to hold an elected office in most states and counties.
Applications for citizenship have been steadily increasing in recent decades, according to data from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). And, says DHS, Asian Americans have the highest naturalization rates in the United States, reaching 261,374 new Americans in 2015 out of a total of 730,259. Legal permanent residents (or green card holders) from India, Philippines and China were among the top nationals applying for U.S. naturalization.
Organizations, such as the Asian Americans Advancing Justice Center (AAJC) — where Yee was volunteering — frequently hold citizenship clinics to help green card holders maneuver the process.
The AAJC clinics are part of a nationwide initiative called the New Americans campaign, which is funded by a number of private foundations aiming to help community groups reach a broad number of immigrants and help as many people as possible to naturalize.
Relatives and government jobs
This clinic was held in downtown Rockville, Maryland, where some 20 volunteers helped walk-ins or pre-screened legal residents to check in, fill out a 20-page form, and verify the necessary documentation.
"I understand how difficult it is. Even for myself … every time I try to fill in any government application, it's overwhelming," Yee said. She received the same assistance when she was applying for U.S. citizenship.
"[I tell them] every angle of their lives matter [when] they're citizens because it's the only way they can voice their needs," Yee said. "They gain the ownership of where they live. And the more Asians get citizenship [status], that means more votes. That means more power to address their voice."
But she concedes that most Asian applicants, like herself, are mainly interested in bringing over relatives or in getting federal government jobs.
To be a citizen, a person begins with a green card that allows an immigrant to permanently live and work in the U.S. The countdown to the path to citizenship then begins. After five years, the permanent resident can apply for naturalization. If legal residence was acquired through marriage, the wait is three years.
Many choose not to apply. In 2013, 8 million people were eligible to become citizens, DHS says, but only a small fraction chose to apply. Marita Etcubanez, director of strategic initiatives at AAJC, says one reason is cost. Citizenship applicants must pay $725.
However, Etcubanez projects a surge in naturalization applications in the coming months.
A lot has to do with fear, she said, referring to President Donald Trump's executive orders to stop illegal immigration. A set of guidelines issued in February by DHS Secretary John Kelly expanded the priority list for immigrants who face immediate removal, summarized a plan to hire thousands of enforcement agents, and assigned local authorities to act as immigration officers to apply immigration laws.
Green card holders are not generally subject to arrest and deportation, but Etcubanez says, "Folks are concerned."
Citizenship seems like a safe harbor. "Once you become a U.S. citizen you don't have to worry about deportation," Etcubanez said. "You're not in danger. You don't have to worry about jeopardizing your immigration status in any way, right. You're set.
'I love this country'
Not everyone is worried.
Leo, a 60-year-old Maryland resident who wanted VOA to use only his nickname, said he is "too old" to apply for federal jobs and is not interested in sponsoring a family member.
"The reason I want to naturalize is because I love this country," the Chinese national said.
Through an interpreter, Leo said AAJC volunteers helped him at the citizenship clinic weeks prior. He then decided to bring his wife. They were both applying for naturalization.
In 2009, the Chinese national came to the United States and asked for asylum. He used to own copyrights to products in the educational field in China, but soon found himself fighting to keep those rights.
He was persecuted and treated "unfairly," Leo said. Once he was able to get to the U.S., he felt the American government was "really supportive" and treated him "fairly."
Leo said he is not afraid of deportation because he has been obeying the law, and he supports Trump and his new immigration policies "as long as whatever he does follows the U.S. Constitution."