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.

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."

Back in Tuan Van Dang's classroom in the Tenderloin, Sui Tran explains the frustration: "I can't even remember one or two words. When I try to remember things, my head hurts," she says in Cantonese, tapping a finger to her forehead. "It's very stressful."

Van Dang has been teaching the same eight questions for six weeks. The class often takes as much as two hours to master one word. "By the time they figure out the answer, they've forgotten the question," he says.

Since welfare reform passed last summer, nonprofits have been adding programs and classes (see "Nonprofits Put to the Test," Page 14). But the city, for its part, has had more talk than action to date.

San Francisco still has no concrete program in place to cope with the impact of the new welfare rules. The mayor's 154-member Welfare Reform Task Force, which includes a special Immigration Committee staffed by the Commission on the Aging, began meeting in October. A final report is expected in May -- three months before the new rules kick in.

The city's most decisive action so far has been to apply for money from the Emma Lazarus Fund, the $50 million nationwide pool that businessman George Soros established to offset the negative impact of welfare reform on noncitizens. That would pay for a citywide naturalization program, expanding existing services at community nonprofits. The Commission on the Aging's David Ishida says the application has been approved, but a final dollar amount won't be determined until the end of this month. He says the city is hoping for around $3 million.

Still, immigrant advocates say the city has been short-sighted and slow to respond. "If San Francisco had expanded actual services just a few months earlier, we could have saved federal aid to thousands of elderly and disabled immigrants who are qualified to become citizens," says Gen Fujioka, an attorney with the Asian Law Caucus. "Naturalizing SSI recipients is what makes sense for San Francisco. We're all going to pay if this program to naturalize fails."

The numbers are significant. As many as 13,000 newly disqualified SSI recipients could join S.F.'s welfare rolls starting in August, according to the city's Department of Human Services. The increased caseload is likely to cost the city more than $30 million for fiscal year 1997-98. The new population is expected to remain on GA for several years, because they can't move off welfare to work.

Proponents of welfare reform argue that the new rules will force families to take financial responsibility for their elderly. Immigrant advocates respond that most families who can afford to help are already doing so. Census figures show that 60 percent of the city's legal immigrants live alone. GA will be the only recourse for many.

President Clinton's 1997-98 budget proposal asks Congress to restore $21 billion in SSI benefits for legal immigrants who became disabled after entering the United States. But that does nothing for the able-bodied elderly, who make up nearly two-thirds of S.F.'s legal immigrant population on SSI. And despite these encouraging noises, the law remains unamended, its damage unmitigated.

At North of Market, Tuan Van Dang's class is nearly over. He has placed a half-dozen slips of paper on the coffee table, each printed with phrases from the INS list of 100 questions. He tells his students he will ask a question in English, and they are to pick up the papers printed with those words.

"How many states in the union?" he asks Hao Yiang, a wiry 75-year-old woman dressed in black, with slicked-back hair. Yiang picks up the paper with "how many" on it.

"See-tate, see-tate," Yiang says softly, as she looks at the slips of paper. All six students scan the table for the missing word.

A timid voice pipes up in Cantonese: "It's not there. There's no 'states,' right?" asks a tiny white-haired woman with smooth skin and delicate hands. Six sets of eyes look up at Van Dang.

"Right," he says with a sigh of relief. The teacher is pleased. Only 99 questions to go.

Show Pages
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.