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Why Cities Push Immigrants To Get Their US Citizenship

NYC launches citizenship drive to prevent having to pick up federal benefits tab for poor immigrants

Luen Sai Leung, a delicate-boned elderly widow, speaks little English, lives alone, and doesn't know what she would do without the federal aid she gets each month.

But like many other elderly and disabled legal immigrants, she may soon lose her benefits. As a result, she spends mornings sitting at an oval table in a downtown office building trying to learn enough English to become a citizen - and preserve her federal assistance.

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America's cities, and the immigrants in them, are toiling hard over citizenship tests. Last August's federal welfare-reform law cuts off disability aid to noncitizens, leaving cities and states to support them.

The immigrants want to keep the federal benefits coming. And cities are concerned they won't have the money to support those who no longer get federal checks. New York alone estimates its bill could be $450 million a year.

Thus many city officials, such as New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (R), are championing the cause of the immigrant poor. The city today begins implementing Citizenship NYC, a naturalization program that refers immigrants to English classes, legal aid, and other services.

It also includes mailings and calls to those who may be eligible for citizenship. At field offices, applicants will be able to get help with applications and have photos and fingerprints taken.

Citizen help

New York is far from alone. Los Angeles County, which has one-fifth of those affected by the new laws, began a naturalization drive with a mass mailing to affected residents.

Seattle linked its New Citizen Initiative with the public library system to provide citizenship information. San Francisco is forming an Immigration Coalition.

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There is some hope the benefits may not be cut off. The latest House and Senate budget bills would protect Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the federal aid program for the elderly and disabled, for immigrants on the rolls as of last August. But neither version would protect food-stamp benefits, and newcomers will not likely receive aid under any circumstances.

Congress originally decided to take away immigrant benefits last August when it passed the welfare-reform bill. It estimated the move would save $23.7 billion. The bill didn't aim to cut off immigrant aid at first, but since elderly immigrants can't vote, "they were used as scapegoats," says Debbie Olsen of the Cato Institute, a conservative think tank.

Proponents counter that some elderly immigrants abuse the system by taking benefits even though their children could support them.

For those now trying to become citizens, it is no easy task, even with the assistance of cities. Ms. Leung's only support is the more than $400 a month she gets in SSI. She sent her naturalization application to Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) - along with the $95 processing fee - last August, but they haven't yet contacted her for an interview.

Xing Dong Jiang, a former teacher who moved to New York from China, passed his written test for citizenship last November. But he too is waiting for an interview. Caseworkers have sent letters on their behalf, but received no response.

Lengthy background checks

Applications are sent to the FBI for a criminal-record check - which can take four months or more. INS has also been implementing quality-control practices in the wake of accusations that it was letting criminals slip through the system; these new procedures slow the process. If approved by the INS, the applicant gets an interview and takes the English and civics tests. In New York, the process can take more than a year.

More obstacles stand in the way for those who are illiterate or not proficient in English. Immigrants over certain ages who have lived here long enough may bring translators to their interviews, and some elderly immigrants may be able to substitute an oral exam for the written test.

But aside from these exceptions, only those who demonstrate physical or mental disability that prevent them from learning English or writing are exempt from the requirements.

To prepare for the tests, many of the elderly learn just enough English to pass. The five members of Ms. Leung's language class can't carry on basic conversations in English, but memorize lists of INS questions and their responses phonetically.

The English-language part is the toughest for many. Mr. Jiang teaches his grandchildren classical Chinese poetry.

Wen Ju Wu, another recent immigrant, translates easily between Mandarin and Cantonese for his classmates. But neither speaks more than a few words of English. One student has already failed the INS test twice, but he keeps trying.

Citizenship NYC will help them and many more. And after the current crisis is over, New York's program will remain, says Ninfa Segarra, the deputy mayor of New York in charge of Citizenship NYC. "Ultimately, that is the only protection."

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