As the right of non-citizens to vote in San Francisco school board elections faces a legal challenge, the city is celebrating a milestone for local immigrants while highlighting their voting power ahead of the midterm elections.
That is, more than 10,000 of them have gained U.S. citizenship through a city-funded program called Pathways to Citizenship Initiative, which launched nearly a decade ago.
City officials and immigrant advocates gathered Wednesday morning in front of City Hall to kick off National Citizenship Month and recognized the occasion.
Among them was 72-year-old Peiying Tan, who immigrated from China 10 years ago, passed the citizenship test this past March and is registered to vote in her first election this fall. When she first arrived stateside, she said naturalization seemed like an unattainable dream—in part because of the language barrier.
“For the first few years in the United States, I couldn’t imagine myself passing the test to become a U.S. citizen,” Tan said.
But with the help of city-backed nonprofits and services, that dream began shaping into reality. On Wednesday, Tan shared her story with reporters.
“I am glad to be here,” she said, “to share with you my pride and joy in becoming an American citizen.”
Being able to weigh in on elections is a strong motivator for many immigrants to gain citizenship.
Maricela Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant who naturalized two years ago, said she no longer fears speaking up for herself and expressing political opinions.
“I knew that once I became a citizen, I was going to be able to choose who I want to represent me,” she said. “It has been a rewarding feeling.”
Both Tan and Alveraz turned to Pathways to Citizenship Initiative to steer them toward their eventual naturalization. Under the program, local immigrant residents can get free language and test training as well as financial support to reimburse the $725 citizenship application if they can’t afford the fee.
The initiative’s lead community partner, Self-Help for the Elderly, a prominent Chinese community nonprofit, has hosted many workshops for monolingual immigrants to get their naturalization process going.
San Francisco supervisors Connie Chan and Myrna Melgar—both immigrants and naturalized citizens—spoke during Wednesday’s event and touted the contribution of foreign-born residents to the city’s culture.
Chan also highlighted the value of non-citizen immigrants who live and work in the city and may not always get the protection and benefits of their naturalized counterparts.
“Let’s make sure,” Chan said, “that during their path to citizenship, we still provide them a sanctuary and create a safe space for them.”
Han Li can be reached at [email protected]