U.S. Starts Chinese Forums to Move More Immigrants to Citizenship

U.S. Starts Chinese Forums to Move More Immigrants to Citizenship

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Above photo is from a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services poster announcing the Feb. 16 “Jiao Liú” forum in Chinese and English versions.

SAN FRANCISCO--San Francisco will host the first-ever national Chinese-language public engagement forum, Feb. 16, where federal immigration officials will answer questions in Mandarin and Cantonese about the U.S. naturalization process, aimed at encouraging more Chinese immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

The forum, the first in a free series called “Jiao Liú” (Chinese for Engagement) will include officials from the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in partnership with the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. People can attend in person or participate via teleconference or on the Web.

Currently 3.6 million Chinese people live in the United States—430,000 of them in the San Francisco Bay Area. That is more than 1 percent of the U.S. population. According to the latest Census data 2.6 million people ages five or older in this country spoke Chinese at home in 2009.

Federal officials say this series is part of its commitment to improve public access to, and understanding of, information and services to those eligible about the nation’s immigration benefits.

New America Media news anchor Odette Keeley spoke to Daphne Kwok, who chairs the President’s Advisory Commission on AAPIs about this forum and why the task force and immigration officials decided to embark on the landmark initiative at this time.

Odette Keeley: Is this the first time that the President’s Advisory Commission has partnered with the USCIS in an initiative of this nature?

Kwok: In the past, commissioners have partnered with USCIS on various issues, including naturalization, work authorization issues, conducting community roundtables, and providing accurate USCIS information to and engagement with AAPI communities. But this is indeed the first national engagement of this nature that we have partnered with the agency on.

Keeley: How will this forum be conducted and how can the public participate?

Kwok: According to the USCIS, which organized this public forum, each Jiao Liú session will begin with a Power Point presentation in Chinese on a specific immigration topic, which an USCIS official will discuss in Chinese [Mandarin]. This will be followed by a question-and-answer period facilitated by USCIS officials in Mandarin and Cantonese. English will only be used if the question is asked in English [via email, phone or in-person].

Individuals can participate in person, via teleconference or live Web stream on Feb. 16, 2012. Instructions on how to use the USCIS teleconferencing and Web stream are available at: www.uscis.gov/jiaoliu.

• In-person: USCIS San Francisco Field Office, 444 Washington Street, San Francisco, CA 94111: 10:30 AM – 12:00 PM PST

• Via Teleconference: 1-800-475-8388; Passcode: Jiao liu;

• Via Live Web Stream click here.

Keeley: Why did the commission and USCIS officials feel the impetus at this point in time to do this program in Chinese?

Kwok: Citizenship has long been a pressing issue for the AAPI community. According to recent Department of Homeland Security estimates, over 1 million AAPI legal permanent residents are eligible to naturalize. Approximately 220,000 of these residents are of Chinese descent.

This administration has placed a priority on citizenship and integration issues. In partnership with the White House Domestic Policy Council, the White House Initiative on AAPIs (WHIAAPI) has held a series of roundtable discussions with immigrant advocates, foundations, educational institutions, state and local officials, leaders from faith communities, business leaders, law enforcement, and others. The task force kicked off the inaugural discussion in Minneapolis and subsequently held roundtables in Seattle, Los Angeles and Hawaii.

According to the USCIS, this is part of an ongoing effort to reach the diverse communities it serves. In 2010 and 2011, USCIS began a national engagement series in Spanish called “Enlaces” to meet the needs of the Spanish-speaking community, which comprises the largest population of non-native English speakers that come before the agency. Chinese is the second most common language, and as such, Jiao Liú sessions are a natural next step.

Keeley: Is this election year a factor in driving the commission and immigration officials to encourage Chinese immigrants to become citizens?

Kwok: According to the USCIS, it is not a primary factor. The agency explains, while citizenship is the primary topic for the first Jiao Liu, USCIS plans to focus on other areas of immigration benefits in the coming months. Naturalization is one of the areas where USCIS does the most work, receives the most inquiries and processes the most cases. We at the commission and USCIS, expect [to] meet the information needs of a large percentage of the population we are aiming to reach with this engagement.

Keeley: What kind of community and Chinese-media outreach did the commission and the USCIS undertake to let community members know across the country of this series of public engagements? What kind of response did you receive?

Kwok: The USCIS reached out to the Chinese-American community through the media, stakeholders and the general public at large via the uscis.gov website. The event has been widely publicized and a large turnout is expected. In addition, the White House Initiative on AAPIs posted the event on its lists and on its Facebook page.

Keeley: What will be the primary focus of the discussion and what specific types of information will the commission and the USCIS stress to Chinese people in the U.S.?

Kwok: The theme of this session will be “The Naturalization Process: Becoming a United States Citizen.” The USCIS’s role is to serve as the official source for citizenship information and resources so that individuals can make an informed decision, and to ensure that those permanent residents who choose to apply for citizenship are supported during the process.

AAPI legal permanent residents strive to become citizens for various reasons. Citizenship allows individuals to be become eligible to vote, to petition for a family member abroad, to be eligible for certain benefits and to run for office. Such rights and privileges empower AAPIs to become fully integrated and engaged in our democracy and society.

Keeley: What has the commission and the USCIS found out in terms of the most difficult obstacles to understanding and accomplishing the U.S. naturalization process for Chinese Americans, especially those who are not fluent in the English language?

Kwok: The USCIS is committed to supporting those on the path to citizenship with free and easy-to-use information resources that help immigrants navigate the steps in the naturalization process.

For non-native English speakers, regardless of specific nationality, one of the most relevant issues is preparing for the naturalization eligibility interviews and civics and English reading and writing tests. USCIS provides information in Chinese to assist applicants through the process.

In addition, through the Citizenship and Integration Grant Program, organizations across the country have received federal funding to prepare permanent residents for successful citizenship through citizenship instruction and naturalization application preparation services.

Keeley: What steps are the USCIS taking, and what assistance is the commission providing, to ensure a clearer, smoother immigration-status legalization and naturalization process for Chinese immigrants?

Kwok: As a first step in the settlement process, USCIS has developed “Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants,” which is available in 14 languages, including Chinese. This comprehensive document provides practical information to help immigrants settle into everyday life in the United States, as well as basic civics information that introduces new immigrants to the U.S. system of government. The guide introduces the naturalization process for those on the path to eventual citizenship.

To prepare permanent residents for the naturalization process, USCIS also has a variety of educational and informational resources to support effective preparation for the naturalization interview and test. USCIS also conducts regular naturalization information sessions across the county to help immigrants better understand naturalization eligibility requirements and what to expect during the naturalization process. The link www.uscis.gov/citizenship has more information on these resources and initiatives.

[Also, click here for a website listing many USCIS products available in Chinese.]

Keeley: Is the USCIS providing assistance to those who might not be able to afford the major fees required in the naturalization process?

Kwok: According to the USCIS, it is predominantly funded by application and petition fees. However, there is a fee-waiver form available for those that are not able to pay the naturalization application fee.

An individual does not automatically qualify for a fee-waiver based on any one particular criterion. Each case is unique and will be considered on its own merits. USCIS evaluates all factors, circumstances and evidence supplied by the individual in support of a fee waiver request before making a determination. [Click for more information about fee waivers.]

Keeley: The White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders spearheaded a landmark effort for the government last year in engaging direct public feedback to plans and programs by government agencies available online through the White House Open Comment Period. Did this program include the USCIS and did you receive specific feedback on immigration legalization and naturalization procedures and requirements from the Chinese-American community?

Kwok: Several AAPI organizations, ethnic media professionals and community members submitted critical feedback and comments during the White House Open Comment Period. Many comments pointed out that immigration, citizenship, integration, data collection and language access remain critical issues for AAPI communities.

We have taken a series of steps to improve our legal immigration system while continuing to insist that comprehensive immigration reform is the most effective long-term path forward. We are reaching out to every possible stakeholder, including the business community, labor movement, faith community, law enforcement and state and local governments to help elevate the debate on this issue and have a national conversation about developing realistic solutions to fix our broken immigration system.

Keeley: Are USCIS and the commission planning to launch future public engagements for other Asian communities in their respective languages?

Kwok: In addition to sessions in Spanish and Chinese, USCIS plans to initiate other immigrant native-language public engagements in 2012. The next language will likely be Vietnamese.


Odette Keeley is host and executive producer of “New America Now”, NAM’s TV show, airing on weekend nights 6 PM PST on COMCAST Hometown Network - CHN 104 & also available on COMCAST ON DEMAND.

Summer Chiang provided additional reporting for this article.