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Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

Hwa Kanj and her daughter Sue Jeon look over citizenship papers.  This will be the first time Kanj is eligible to vote after passing the citizenship test in July. 

Shadan Kapri/MEDILL

Allison Jeong from the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights

Citizenship workshops help immigrants on path to naturalization, voting

by Shadan Kapri
Oct 30, 2012

Hwa Kanj came to America nine years ago to live with her daughter Sue Jeon.

Last July she finally became a U.S. citizen. “It was a long, difficult journey,” Jeon said. A process filled with frustration, success and failure. But now she can vote.

The citizenship paperwork took years to process and when Kanj was finally eligible to take the test she failed the oral portion. The 70-year-old grandmother, who speaks little English, didn’t have the courage to take it again for two years.

“People don’t realize how difficult it can be for someone who moves here from another country and applies for citizenship,” Jeon said.

Yet what seemed impossible at first because of language barriers and a mountain of paperwork became a reality with the help of a non-profit partnership between the State of Illinois and the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to help immigrants through the process of becoming U.S. citizens.

In the past eight years, the Coalition has helped thousands of immigrants become citizens by offering free assistance through legal screenings, referrals to language classes and citizen workshops in Chicago. It is expected that this new partnership might help more immigrants because some will apply at no cost if they receive public benefits or earn 150 percent of the poverty level or less.  Normally it costs $680.

These programs have been invaluable for those who want to be part of the political process and eligible to vote, says Allison Jeong, the citizenship and immigration program coordinator for the Coalition. This year applications for citizenship are up 15 percent from last year, according to government records. This has been an ongoing trend before a presidential election.

In addition, in Illinois 1.5 million children of immigrants are U.S.-born and therefore citizens; 870,000 of them are above the voting age, according to the Coalition.

Jeong said the non-partisan partnership helps many people become citizens who would otherwise find it impossible because of limited access to legal services, lack of money, language difficulties, or inability to understand all of the necessary paperwork.

Kanj agreed and said this is the first time she will be able to vote, a milestone for the Korean immigrant.

“U.S. citizenship is the path to full participation in our nation,” according to the Coalition. Citizenship gives people the opportunity to vote, travel freely, protect themselves from deportation and estrangement from their family members, hold better jobs and have access to all the rights and benefits given to U.S. citizens.

For staff members like Jeong the citizenship programs are a way “to give back to her community.” As a Korean native, she knows first-hand the impact of these initiatives. She said that by helping people become citizens, these programs empower immigrants to lead better lives by having their voices heard in the political process.