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caption: A teacher and student role play a mock citizenship test. The student, Mai Khanh Thi Bui, passed her test a few day after this photo was taken. 
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A teacher and student role play a mock citizenship test. The student, Mai Khanh Thi Bui, passed her test a few day after this photo was taken.
Credit: KUOW

State Funding Cuts Leave Hopeful Citizens In The Lurch

Hundreds of immigrants and refugees plan to head to Olympia Thursday for their annual legislative rally. One message they’ll take to lawmakers is about citizenship.

Nearly 200,000 Washington residents are eligible to become citizens, but the process can be long and complicated. Advocates want to make sure the state keeps up funding for various programs that help navigate the process, including classes at Asian Counseling and Referral Services in Seattle (ACRS), the state’s largest provider of citizenship classes.

At a recent ACRS class in South Seattle, about 40 Vietnamese immigrants turned their full attention to the booming teacher’s voice as she clicked through images on a projector screen. The slideshow paused on a photo of a man in a top hat.

“Abraham!” the teacher drilled. The class parroted back in unison: “Abraham.”

“Lincoln!”

“Lincoln.”

Many of the students are retirement age, but they’re back in school mode to prep for their citizenship test. Most have lived in the U.S. less than five years and still struggle with English, so the teacher weaves Vietnamese explanations throughout her lesson.

They review several history questions that could appear on the test. Then, the teacher tossed out an extra credit question, "What does slavery mean?"

A woman in the back of the room calls out a simple definition: “To sell people,” she said.

Budget Cuts For Citizenship

Xiangping Chen oversees ACRS’ citizenship program, with classes in various languages and locations. She meets a lot of aspiring citizens with their eye on a very specific goal: to vote.

“They’ve never done that in their own country. But after they become a U.S. citizen, they want a taste, you know, of democracy,” Chen said with a chuckle.

But sometimes democracy gets expensive.

State funding covers the costs of most citizenship programs for low-income immigrants, with most funds routed to the Department of Social and Health Services' naturalization services for people on public assistance.

But in 2010, during the recession, the state briefly cut all funding to the program -- nearly $3 million. Some citizenship programs closed; others scaled way back. It left thousands of clients in a lurch.

The DSHS funding has since been restored to about 65 percent of the 2010 budget. As a result, the number of clients served by the DSHS’ naturalization program dropped from 4,277 people in 2010 to 3,060 people in 2014.

The experience left providers like Chen worried the cuts could happen again. She sees these programs as vital to help people get past hurdles to citizenship, like learning English.

“You know, as Asian people they care about saving face,” Chen said. “If they fail, they feel they’ll be humiliated by other people.”

Saving face is one reason people delay the test, another is financial. It costs nearly $700 to apply for citizenship, which can be a hefty savings for many new immigrants in low-wage jobs.

State funding also helps with these fees. There’s incentive for the state to pay. For people who receive public assistance, like food stamps, some costs shift from the state to the federal government once they become citizens.

Studies also show people who gain citizenship become more involved in their community and tend to earn more money.

Connection To America

Outside the citizenship class at ACRS, Trung Dang Vuong, 57, said he looks forward to new opportunities and benefits as a citizen. He and his wife came here from Vietnam five years ago, where he said life was bleak.

Vuong launched into a long dialog about poverty and corruption in the communist country he left. He ended on a note about paying bribes in Vietnam.

“After university to go to work, we need to pay a little bit to the officer if we want to get a new job, a better job. Yeah, we have nothing in my country,” he said.

Vuong has a connection to America that goes back decades. It started with his father.

“My daddy -- he was a high officer in the Republic of Vietnam. I mean the previous government,” Voung said.

His father assisted the U.S. government during the war, and for that, later ended up in a labor camp. “He died after one year in 1976,” he said.

For Vuong’s father, his association with the U.S. cost him his life. But for Vuong, it brings a new home, and he’s more than ready to make it official.

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