Between learning U.S. civics and history to acing all four parts of the naturalization exam — passing the U.S. citizenship test is no walk in the park. For older immigrants who don’t speak English, the learning curve can be even steeper.
“Think about your own grandmother,” said Jason Baker, executive director with Bilingual International Assistant Services. “Imagine her trying to learn a completely foreign language at an advanced age. And then in that foreign language learn about the Federalist Papers and be able to produce it on command. Some grandmothers will be able to do it. Others will not. Mine certainly couldn’t.”
For almost a decade, Bilingual International has run a program helping legal permanent residents and refugees over age 60 study for and pass the U.S. citizenship exam. But the successful program could be in jeopardy because of state budget cuts.
Bilingual International, which operates statewide, was the first of its kind in the nation. It serves immigrants and refugees from 36 countries between the ages of 60 and 91.
Despite an 87 percent success rate over the past four and a half years, and eight years of renewed funding from the state Department of Health and Senior Services — the naturalization program has an uncertain future.
Last month, Gov. Eric Grietens cut $146 million from the state’s budget, including the $100,000 grant that funds the naturalization program. Representatives from both Greitens' administration and the Department of Health and Senior Services did not return requests for comment.
“It would be easy to be pessimistic right now about the project’s chances for survival,” Baker said. “But we’re working with our partners in Jefferson City, and we’re hopeful that we can get [funding] restored.”
But a successful effort to do so could be as far off as the next fiscal year, which startes in July. That's not likely to happen, however, given that Greitens’ 2018 budget announced this week makes more than $572 million in cuts in state funding.
While they try to get the program's funding restored, Baker and his colleagues are piecing together resources from other Bilingual International programs to ensure immigrants already in the program can see it all the way through.
Among those who have benefited from the program is Lumturije Harizi Byku, who was born in Albania.
The 65-year-old arrived in the United States in 2008 on a lottery visa to be close to her daughters. After studying one-on-one with a volunteer tutor for over a year, she passed all parts of the citizenship exam on Monday. She is not officially a U.S. citizen as she has yet to take her Oath of Allegiance to the United States, but said the process has changed her life.
“Being an immigrant, when you don’t speak English too, is very hard.” Byku said. “You feel isolated, you can’t communicate. Now, when I travel, [I’m able] to communicate with the officer at airport. When I go shopping, I understand what the cashier is [telling] me. I am not lost anymore.”
She laments that the naturalization program might be unavailable for others struggling learn a new language in a new country at an advanced age.
“We live in the family, with our kids — they know wonderful English because they studied here, but they have no time to help us,” Byku said. “Without this program, for most of us its very hard to go through citizenship test. America is a country who gives everybody space and possibility to benefit. Through this program, [we become] more involved in American lifestyle and] community.”
Naturalization program operations have not completely halted thanks to the time of volunteer tutors. For Sharafina Azman Al Rashid, volunteering as a citizenship tutor is personal. She came to the United States from Malaysia at age 13 and passed the exam a few years later.
Al Rashid said passing the test was a daunting task, even after learning English and taking civics classes in high school. For the past two years, she has tutored Bac Le, a 70-year-old from Vietnam.
“I was taken aback when I found out about the fund cut because this is such a helpful program for these older folks,” Al Rashid said. “For the most part, when you think about a lot of the assistance out there for immigrants it’s for younger people, families, and the older generation tends to be forgotten — and that’s what this program does, it focuses on helping this side of the generation.”
Between processing new information in a new language, many clients in their advanced age are also facing periodic medical issues that can affect their studies and their families. When an immigrant completes the naturalization program and is able to become a U.S. citizen, they also become eligible for broader federal benefits. That means they often rely less on state benefits.
“These are all lawful permanent residents, they’re not going anywhere and they are going to have health care needs — just like any other older adult that was American born,” Baker said. “If we have younger immigrants with an older parent that they have to take care of, that they have to get to doctor’s appointments, that they have to worry about health insurance for, it can create a hardship on families. Citizenship can alleviate some of that burden.”
Bilingual International's naturalization program has had to stop taking new clients — even though the program has seen a surge in interest among eligible seniors since the November elections.
“People that have been putting off becoming U.S. citizens for one reason or another are suddenly very interested in getting it over with to protect their status,” Baker said. “They’ve got family members dying in Bosnia and they’re afraid to go visit for the funeral because they don’t know if they’re going to be able to get back into the country.”
Those fears have been exacerbated by President Donald Trump’s executive order banning travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries for 90 days — in some cases, even travelers with valid visas or green cards.
Al Rashid said the president's executive orders on immigration and the state funding cuts concern her. But she said she’ll keep working with her clients to help them become U.S. citizens so they won’t have to worry.
“Everybody still has dreams. We all still have the need to succeed or achieve something — that doesn’t die away when you age,” Al Rashid said. “I mean, they came from a different country to a different life and they want to be a part of this country as a citizen. I think we should commend that.”
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