Peter Pham doesn't need to become a citizen. He already is one. But he sat with his wife at a recent Vietnamese-language presentation in Santa Ana about the naturalization process.
The presentation is part of the federal government's first-ever national outreach campaign in the Vietnamese language to get out the word about the naturalization process. The goal is to inform the Vietnamese community in the U.S. about the naturalization process. It's part of a broader initiative to reach out to potential citizens in their native languages.
"I myself [am] really happy to be American," said Pham, who became a citizen more than 30 years ago, when he was among the first wave of immigrants to flee war-torn Vietnam.
Now his wife wants to be American, too. But she has limited English to understand the process. Pham said the Vietnamese session in Santa Ana helped answer questions, "like how to fill out the application and what requirements we should have, stuff like that."
"That's in English," Pham said. "We need Vietnamese to explain more clearly."
Kim Chi Tran has that same struggle. She came to Orange County from Vietnam more than five years ago. She wants to vote and bring family to the U.S. She has taken the English-language citizenship test twice and failed each time.
"The most difficult is the writing part," Tran said through a translator. "If I can write just a few sentences, short, I can do it. Now at 64 years old, I can't remember everything. I'm old."
Tran says growing up in the countryside, she didn't get a good education to start. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) does offer to waive the English requirement for people who have legally lived here many years, but Tran hasn't been here long enough.
About 8.5 million legal permanent residents are eligible to naturalize in the United States. Nearly one-third of them live in California. It is clear during the question-and-answer session at the Santa Ana kickoff of the Vietnamese outreach that most of the people in the room struggle with English.
"We have 1.7 million Vietnamese in the U.S. and California is the center for Vietnamese, particularly in Orange County, what we call outside of Vietnam 'Little Saigon,' " said immigration officer Dominic Nguyen.
As of 2011, more than 210,000 Vietnamese legal permanent residents in the U.S. were eligible to become U.S. citizens. However, Nguyen says in places like Orange County and San Jose with vibrant Vietnamese neighborhoods, newer arrivals find it easy enough to get around without learning English or becoming citizens.
"The difficulty they're facing is learning English, speaking English, reading English, watching TV in English," Nguyen said. "As you see, a lot of the Vietnamese channels are on the TV. Like my parents, they never turn anything else besides Vietnamese channel."
Nguyen says more recent arrivals do not face the same struggles adapting to American life as he did when he arrived after the 1975 fall of Saigon.
"For us before, we struggle and we fight and we want to be part, but for the new arrivals, they're so comfortable, they need to be, you know, pushed for U.S. citizen[ship]," Nguyen said, after making the Vietnamese presentation in Santa Ana. In his job as an immigration officer, Nguyen hopes to give new arrivals a nudge in their own language.
Quynh Pham of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles thinks the national outreach in Vietnamese will help, but she says there are still barriers.
"The cost is $680 per application, so that's a lot of money. And sometimes there are multiple members in the family that are eligible to apply, so the cost can be very high," Pham said. "And the process, it's very lengthy and filling out the application alone is a very long process."
But Pham thinks it's worth it. She said it's important for immigrants to be able to vote and have a voice in their community. "You feel more confident and you feel that you can engage more and help out in other ways if you become a citizen," Pham said.
The government plans more outreach events in Vietnamese, Spanish and Chinese.