During Welcoming Week, I am reflecting on the story of my immigrant father and the act of citizenship that made our family’s American dream happen.
My father, Hyoju, was born on a rice farm in South Korea. At age 29, he won a college scholarship in the United States. So, with one suitcase and his life savings of $100, he landed at Sea-Tac in 1965 and was met by the Freeman family, who were friends of his English teacher in Seoul. I called the Freemans my “Seattle Grandma and Grandpa,” because they informally adopted our family and helped us settle here.
The Freemans showed my dad the Space Needle, cooked him his first American food and then put him on a bus to Washington State University. But, my dad thought he was going to grad school in Washington, D.C. He had no idea there were two Washingtons—or that America was so big.
It was indeed big, but so were his aspirations. He would go on to get his Ph.D. in math and become a professor at WSU, guiding countless students along the way. I was born in Pullman and went to University of Washington.
One of the most important landmarks in my father’s classic American journey occurred on May 1, 1981, when he became naturalized. My dad was proud on that day, when our family—dressed in our Sunday finery—attended his citizenship ceremony. This momentous decision not only greatly benefited him, but also made life better for our family. It also underscores the value of helping millions of legal residents like him do the same thing: become citizens.
There are nearly 9 million lawful permanent residents in America eligible for naturalization. They come here with the same dreams that my father had. But the naturalization process is daunting. It’s also expensive: $680 per person, proposed to increase to $725 this year, a cost that adds up if a family seeks citizenship. And finally, many eligible immigrants simply don’t know where to find help.
We’re trying to change that. A group of foundations, including the Evelyn & Walter Haas, Jr. Fund, and Carnegie and Grove foundations, have teamed up to create the New Americans Campaign, a national network of legal service providers, faith-based organizations, businesses, foundations and community leaders who help “green card” holders around the country attain citizenship. The goals of the Campaign are simple: It’s making citizenship as easy as 1-2-3. The New Americans Campaign does that by promoting the benefits of citizenship and eliminating the barriers for naturalization, through fee waivers and free legal advice as well as weekend workshops.
In the past five years, the New Americans Campaign has completed 230,000 naturalization applications across 18 cities, with a new site in Seattle.
Securing citizenship for lawful permanent residents enjoys bipartisan support, because it represents the American dream. Those who take this important step tend to have higher incomes and own their own homes, not to mention the right to vote. My father has voted in every election since he became a citizen 35 years ago.
New citizens are not the only ones who gain advantages from increased naturalizations. We all benefit when our neighbors, and their children, are grounded in American values; citizenship does that. It’s a rite of passage that unites us, that makes us all part of the rich American fabric.
That was the case for my father—who now goes by the name Joe. He is 79 now, but he remembers taking his oath like it was yesterday. That was his citizenship day, and I hope that for the millions like him, they get a chance to experience their own day, too.
For more information about the New Americans Campaign, go to: http://newamericanscampaign.org.