By Azhar AlFadl
New York—On a recent fall afternoon, a throng walked out of the federal courthouse in lower Manhattan, and people were quickly greeted by the cheers and hugs of family and friends. They had just taken their first oaths as citizens of the United States.
Immediately, they made a quick beeline to a table with stacks of voter registration forms. It was Oct. 12, the last day for New York residents to submit their forms.
Benny Mathew, 35, an immigrant from Kerala, India, filled his out in a quiet corner away from the crowds. His citizenship was not as much of a reason to celebrate. In fact, it was something he put off for years.
“It took me a while to decide because India does not allow dual citizenship [..] and I didn’t know if I wanted to give that passport up,” he said. Mathew’s wife and children are U.S. citizens.
It’s a story common among Asian immigrants in New York. Language barriers and a lack of interest in citizenship delay or deter many immigrants from becoming citizens. And it may be an issue particularly in Congressional District 6 in Queens, New York’s only congressional district with an Asian plurality.
Its lines were recently redrawn in a way that gives Asian residents a better chance to elect the candidate of their ethnicity. That has provided Taiwanese-American candidate Grace Meng a boost against her Republican opponent, City Councilman Dan Halloran, in the race.
As both candidates make their final appeal before Tuesday’s election, they’ll have to deal with the reality that many people in the community are not citizens.
Between 2000 and 2010, Asians in the borough were becoming citizens at a rate of 50 percent, according to the 2010 Census. By comparison, a Pew report shows that 59% of Asian Americans are naturalized citizens, compared to 45% of all foreign-born adults
Moreover, in New York, they’re becoming U.S. citizens at much slower rates than the past. A recent report by the Asian American Federation of New York shows that Asian naturalization has dropped over the years. Once the fastest ethnic group to naturalize, they are now second lowest, after Hispanics. Ninety percent of Asians that arrived between 1980 and 1989 became citizens in that period, while in comparison, only 14% became citizens between 2000 and 2010.
And indeed, some residents of Flushing – a heavily Asian neighborhood – say they have no interest in becoming U.S. citizens.
Keyu Pan isn’t interested in domestic politics. He moved from Taiwan five years ago, making him eligible for citizenship this year. Because he is 19, he could have voted for the first time in Tuesday’s elections.
“It’s not necessary that I get citizenship,” he said. “I don’t need to vote.”
His family moved to New York so he could get a high school and college education. But he’s ready to go back. Instead of going to a four-year college he says, “I’ll just go to community college for two years for a degree.” He plans to return to Taiwan with his parents in the next two years.
Andrew Kwok, an immigrant from China and technician for the Metro Transit Authority (MTA), has lived in the U.S. practically his whole life. At 28, he also knows he wants to move back. He says he’ll move when he becomes eligible for MTA retirement benefits at age 62.
“I was born in China and I’ll die in China,” he said.
He has spent most of his life moving with his family to nine states, where they worked at a string of Chinese restaurants. He’s been living in Flushing for the past six years, where he helps run a mobile phone accessory shop, in addition to his work as an MTA technician.
Amid all his moves, he’s had a chance to visit China only once. That was 16 years ago. Despite spending so much time in the U.S., he’s never cared about local or national politics.
The increase in Asian elected officials in Queens has made him neither more politically engaged. “It doesn’t really matter to me. I only care about politics at home. Even though there are so many Chinese people here, it’s not a substitute for home.”
Some immigrants want to become American citizens. But the challenge to learn English slows down the process.
In Queens, Asians have been the fastest growing minority community, expanding by 30% in the last 10 years. Over 200,000 Asians have moved to New York since 2000. Many arrive able to speak little to no English at all.
English lessons are offered at the Chinese Immigrant Services office in Flushing. Almost all the students are women older than 40. Few men show up at afternoon classes, since most are at work, explained Lisa Stewart, the only teacher at the office.
The naturalization process can be particularly difficult for the middle-aged and elderly, when learning a new language is more of a challenge. Nearly 50% of foreign-born residents in Queens are over the age of 45, according to the ACS Survey.
Yue Shengzhao, 65, is a student at the Chinese Immigrant Services office. She moved to Flushing from China two years ago and started taking English classes six months later. “I want to be a citizen but it’s so hard to learn English,” she said through a translator. “I need to pass the U.S. citizenship test.”
Immigration law dictates that immigrants 65 years or older do not have to meet a minimum residency period, nor are they required to take the test in English. They can take it in their native language.
This was news to Yu. When the translator explained this to her, she jumped out of her seat, cheering, and hugged a reporter.
“Most people don’t know much about what they have to do for the citizenship test,” said the translator, Michael Lau.
Not able to invest the time it takes to learn the English language, Lau’s parents are also waiting to turn 65 before they take their exams. They run a textile shop in Flushing and are both 61 years old.
There are several other ESL (English as a Second Language) classes available in or near Flushing. Private institutes offer language courses that can be expensive.
Wang Xin, 25, has been taking classes at Zoni Language Center, which offers private classes at the Hong Kong Supermarket in Flushing. Originally from China, she had a little background in English, which placed her in the seventh lowest of 20 English levels taught in the program. With each level running for two months, and priced at $240 a month, she found the cost and commitment to be too much. “I only made it to level 13,” she said.
Many of the free ESL classes in Flushing and its surrounding areas can hardly meet student demand.
The Adult Learning Program in the Flushing Library is one of the more dynamic programs in the area. It operates mainly with the help of volunteers using a curriculum designed like that of a formal school.
“Each year we receive 2,000 applications,” said Alla Osokina, manager of the library’s Literacy Center. Roughly 240 students are accepted through a lottery system.
Because the program received less funding from the state this year, it lost three of six full-time staff. Like many other programs in the area, it will struggle to teach students with fewer resources. Many of these students may be interested in taking a citizenship test.