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

For the many elderly noncitizens who came as refugees and asylum-seekers, the switch is especially severe. They came from countries of so-called "special humanitarian interest" to the United States: Vietnamese, who had spent years as prisoners in work camps in Laos and Cambodia after the Vietnam War; Latin Americans seeking political asylum from the likes of Somoza's repressive regime in Nicaragua; and Jews and evangelical Christians fleeing religious persecution in the former Soviet Union. Their special status granted them entry to the U.S. with very few conditions. They were not even required to show they could support themselves. They came to the United States with little or no money -- and no English.

Now, to continue receiving government aid, elderly immigrants -- refugees included -- must speak English well enough to satisfy the INS. Specifically, they must be prepared to respond to 100 citizenship questions, although the INS examiner usually asks only a few. They must prepare for the "personal interview," also given in English, as well. The INS allows some exceptions to the English-language rules, based on a person's age and length of residency in the U.S. For example, immigrants who are over 55 and have lived here more than 15 years can take the naturalization test in their native languages. Those who are very old need only know answers from an abridged list of 25 questions. But most of the elderly noncitizens in S.F. are not expected to qualify for these exceptions. Finally, applicants can opt to take the civics and history test in writing, which might be easier for those who can read and write English better than they can speak it. But for illiterate applicants, that choice is irrelevant.

Janet Griffiths runs the citizenship program at North of Market Senior Services where Van Dang teaches. She says the center's elderly clients are predominantly former refugees from small farming villages in Southeast Asia. They arrived in the mid-'80s and early '90s -- well short of the INS 15-year exemption period. Only a fortunate few of the center's male clients -- and almost none of the women -- are literate in their native Vietnamese, Chinese, Khmer, or Lao. (Traditionally, families with enough money would send only their sons to school. Girls weren't considered worth investing education dollars on, because they would inevitably marry and leave the family. Daughters stayed home and helped with housework and cooking, or cared for their siblings.)

Griffiths says many of her students have taken years of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, with little success. She calls the new citizenship requirement "unrealistic."

"How can you expect them to pass an interview when they don't have the language skills to be able to remember or understand what someone's asking?" says Griffiths. "If you come to the U.S. when you're 20, you're going to be able to pick up the language. But when you're 60, 70, or even 80, it's really hard. They try, but they just can't remember."

Kiev Lim, a 79-year-old former refugee from Cambodia, can tell you the basic details of her life in simple English. She lives alone in an Ellis Street apartment with no kitchen, where the rent is $375 a month. She's been here seven years. She is sharp-eyed and lucid. Yet Lim has failed the citizenship test five times.

"I was scared. I got nervous and I forgot everything," Lim says with the help of a translator. "Even before the examiner asked me anything, I was already shaking."

In addition to citizenship classes at North of Market, she goes to ESL classes and studies every day. In a few weeks, she will pay the INS another $95 (the standard fee) and take the test again. "I'm very worried," she says. "Learning English is so difficult."

Struggle is nothing new to Lim. To escape the Khmer Rouge, she walked from her village in Cambodia to Thailand one night, eight hours over dozens of miles without stopping. Like many of the city's elderly immigrants, Lim has known war and dire poverty. She wonders what will happen to her next.

Even now, several months before the welfare revisions kick in, the effects of the new rules are already being felt. Community agencies report increasing difficulty placing elderly noncitizens in Bay Area nursing homes. Jewish Family and Children's Services Executive Director Anita Friedman says facilities are reluctant because they fear those patients won't be able to pay after they lose their benefits. "People are scared about taking care of poor people," she says.

So-called "reverse immigration" has already begun among the city's elderly immigrants who rely on government assistance, says Anni Chung, executive director of Self-Help for the Elderly. Cambodians in their 70s and 80s who fled the Khmer Rouge are preparing to return to their homeland, although the political climate remains unstable. Chinese immigrants who went to Hong Kong after the Communists took over in 1949, and then left Hong Kong for the U.S., are considering returning to the former British colony, even though the fate of Hong Kong's residents after the July 1 Communist takeover is unclear.

The new requirement places considerable stress on a frail population, says Chung, whose organization serves more than 20,000 people, mostly Chinese. "Seniors who have failed multiple times get very depressed. They get sick, their blood pressure goes up," she says. "Some just give up."

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