Nonprofits Put to the Test

Since August, when the welfare reform bill passed, San Francisco nonprofits that help the city's elderly immigrants have focused on a single objective: citizenship. Through extra classes, workshops, and information hot lines, community groups have intensified efforts to naturalize the elderly noncitizen population, concentrating on the Asian, Latino, and Russian communities that will be the hardest hit.

In the two months after the law changed, the caseload at the Asian Law Caucus went from 80 to 180 clients. Centro Latino de San Francisco's citizenship class enrollment doubled to 175 students, and the nonprofit hurried to offer classes seven days a week instead of the normal three. At the International Institute's monthly naturalization workshops, attendance swelled to 200 -- more than triple its pre-welfare reform total.

To accelerate the naturalization process, Jewish Family and Children's Services (JFCS) persuaded the INS to begin off-site testing at neighborhood churches, synagogues, and community centers last year. The INS has since held a dozen such sessions, where as many as 100 immigrants of a wide range of ethnicities have taken their citizenship tests in one day.

"We said to the INS, 'We will make this easier for you,' " explains JFCS's Anita Friedman. "We will organize among ourselves, and we will prepare our clients so they can pass tests and make it easier for the INS to naturalize larger numbers of people faster."

But preparing clients to take their tests is a huge and costly task in itself. Community organizations typically offer their programs for free, or at minimal cost, because the people they serve are very poor. And to date, the city's nonprofits have received little government money to help with the problem, aside from some minimal support from the state Department of Education for English as a Second Language classes.

Immigrant advocates are anxiously awaiting word on the city's application to the Emma Lazarus Fund, the $50 million grant billionaire George Soros set up to help legal immigrants become citizens.

"We have no other resources," says Self-Help for the Elderly's Anni Chung. "The urgency is now.

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