Desperately Seeking Citizenship

With the advent of new federal welfare rules for elderly immigrants, S.F.'s oldest and poorest are running out of time

At 9:30 on this gray Thursday morning in January, Tuan Van Dang is setting out to accomplish what some have called an impossible task. He is trying to teach women old enough to be his grandmothers -- women who can't read, write, or speak English -- the civics fundamentals the INS requires for citizenship. Van Dang's deadline is tight -- and, like the law that spawned it, unforgiving.

The six students, all Asian immigrants, hurry to class at North of Market Senior Services on Turk Street in the Tenderloin. They have been meeting twice a week since Thanksgiving, so they know the routine. They are anxious not to be late, and anxious about having enough time to learn English. They must complete the six- to seven-month naturalization process by August, when new welfare rules will cut most noncitizens from federal programs like Supplemental Security Income (SSI), which for these women will mean the difference between paying rent and being evicted.

Van Dang greets his pupils in Cantonese and Vietnamese as they filter into the makeshift classroom, the center's rec room divided in two by a fuzzy gray partition. On the other side, a second, larger citizenship class is also under way.

The women, wearing flat shoes and well-worn coats, sit in mismatched chairs drawn around a low coffee table. Weathered hands hold photocopied work sheets -- questions and answers from the INS citizenship test. Van Dang has highlighted key words like "stars" and "stripes" in bright yellow ink. Above the English, he has printed how the words might sound when spoken by someone whose first language is Vietnamese. "Flag" becomes "flet," "July 4" is "chu-lai pho," "stripes" is "strai." "Red, white, and blue" Van Dang translates as "ret, quai, blu." He reads through the first eight questions and answers, pronouncing each phrase slowly and clearly. The women watch and listen attentively, and then carefully repeat the phrases after him, each new word a challenge in itself.

Now for the hard part, the practice questions in English. Van Dang turns to Sui Tran, a 75-year-old Chinese-Vietnamese woman with bifocals and graying black hair, who sits beside him, her arms folded across her stomach. Tran spent four years in a Thai refugee camp before coming to the United States in 1992.

"How many stars are there on our flag?" Van Dang asks, with an encouraging smile. The 34-year-old teacher, himself a former refugee, came from Vietnam by boat. He learned English while working as a busboy and a cab driver after his arrival in the U.S. He knows how difficult this is.

Tran draws a long breath: "Red, white, and blue."
Van Dang gently shakes his head and asks again, "How many stars?" The other students silently repeat the question, their eyes searching their pages for the answer.

Tran tries again: "White."
The teacher's smile disappears. He sighs, and patiently corrects Tran. She scans the work sheet, but Van Dang's system is little help. She can't read Chinese or Vietnamese, much less English.

These six students are among the city's 17,000 elderly, disabled, and blind legal immigrants who currently depend on federal aid. Last week, the Social Security Administration began sending notices informing them and all other immigrants on SSI that they must show proof of citizenship to keep the $640 to $695 a month they currently receive. Even those who arrived in the United States as refugees will lose their payments if they have been in the country more than five years and have not yet been naturalized. According to Social Security's latest numbers, two-thirds of S.F.'s 17,000 are expected to lose their benefits because they won't be able to become citizens. Sixty percent are Asians, the remainder mostly Latinos and emigres from the former Soviet Union. Many came to the U.S. within the last two decades.

Those who lose their SSI are likely to be forced onto San Francisco's own General Assistance (GA) welfare program, which pays $345 a month. The shift is expected to send the city's costs soaring by millions of dollars a year -- millions that the city could have saved by making a timely investment in naturalizing these noncitizens.

"When people lose SSI, their only recourse is GA," says David Ishida, executive director of the city's Commission on the Aging, the city agency charged with helping elderly immigrants cope with the new law. "Realistically, nobody's prepared to deal with those numbers."

Until now, S.F.'s elderly immigrants had no pressing need to learn English. When they came to the United States, legal immigrants weren't required to become citizens within a set number of years. And federal laws made no mention of denying government aid to the disabled or elderly who had not been naturalized.

Then last summer, the rules suddenly changed. Elderly immigrants are now desperately trying to learn enough English to pass their citizenship tests. But for many of the city's elderly noncitizens, the endeavor is futile. Many are illiterate in their first language, so that learning another language is virtually impossible, especially now that they are aged. Seniors from Southeast Asia came primarily from small rural villages, and often have had no schooling of any kind. A study by the Centro Latino de San Francisco shows that the Mission District's elderly have little formal education -- third grade at best. Many of the Latinos here cannot even read or write Spanish, much less English. In the cases of immigrant populations who are in fact literate in their first languages, like the elderly Russians, learning English means mastering an entirely new alphabet.

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