After last year’s presidential election, Saranya Cheapchon panicked.
Born in Thailand, the Irvine mother of two has lived in the United States since she was 4, and has been a legal, permanent resident since age 10. Her husband and children are U.S. citizens. But suddenly, she felt a new sense of vulnerability.
“At that point, I understood that anything could happen,” she said. “We could be out of the country, and who knows, legal residents could be barred from entry. Especially with children, I couldn’t take that risk. There’s such instability for immigrants at this time.”
Cheapchon decided to apply for citizenship, seeing it as the best way to protect herself and her family during politically tumultuous times, she said, citing President Trump’s travel ban that bars entry for people from several Muslim-majority countries and restricts the number of refugees allowed into the United States.
“I started thinking about the Japanese internment,” she said of the 120,000 Japanese and Japanese Americans who were held in concentration camps during World War II, “and you think that things can’t happen — but really, they can.”
Cheapchon was one of 400 Asian-born legal permanent residents who sought citizenship this year through a series of clinics hosted by Asian Americans Advancing Justice Orange County. The effort included 15 workshops offering free legal services and guidance through the citizenship application process in English, Korean, Vietnamese, Mandarin, Khmer, Chinese and Spanish.
Katelyn Ogawa, Orange County policy coordinator for the civil rights group, said concerns about White House immigration policies were a top concern for clients.
“People had felt good enough being legal, permanent residents and green [card] holders; they felt that they were safe,” she said. “But when Trump lumped them all together [with undocumented immigrants], they felt like they needed to become citizens so that they could never be deported, and to give them that extra level of security.
“There’s just this heightened fear and this feeling that they’re next.”
An estimated 220,000 Orange County residents are eligible for naturalization, according to Advancing Justice, and nearly 30% of them are of Asian origin.
As of Sept. 30, more than 15,000 people in Orange County applied this year for naturalization, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Tammy Kim, one of the co-founders of the Korean American Center, which co-hosted one of Advancing Justice’s citizenship clinics on Nov. 18, said that despite a growing in interest in naturalization, language and cost remain a barrier for many.
“It’s very cost-prohibitive,” she said, citing the $725 application fee. “Not just filing paperwork, but if you don’t understand how to navigate through the process, which documents to get — because one slip-up, one missed paper can delay everything — then you opt to hire an attorney who can help you, and all those things start adding up.”
The November clinic held at Irvine’s Northwood Community Center offered free legal services, including applying for a reduced application fee, in English and Korean.
“What we’re trying to do is minimize the obstacles,” Kim said.
Edward Park, a music teacher at Irvine Valley College who attended the clinic with his parents and brother, said the on-site attorneys were helpful in navigating the complexities of the application, particularly for his parents, who “don’t know English that well.”
“It’s not something I could really sit down and figure out on my own,” he said.
Tricia Nguyen, CEO of Southland Integrated Services, which hosted a citizenship clinic with Advancing Justice in Santa Ana on Dec. 16, said trust is another barrier. When the organization, formerly known as the Vietnamese Community of Orange County, first started holding the workshops, attendance was low “because the concept was so new,” she said. “People think, ‘If I come, I’m not going to get in trouble.’”
As time went on, she saw those attitudes change and participation grow.
In addition to the clinics, Southland hosts weekly citizenship classes that have seen their numbers boom, from about 10 per week to 60, said Nguyen.
“We say, ‘We don’t know how things are going to change, so let’s get your citizenship — it’s like a safety ticket,’” she said. “Now, because of the fear factor with Trump, everyone started applying.”
Fear isn’t the only motivation.
Tam Phung, a Fountain Valley resident and Coastline Community College student who attended the December clinic at Southland, said citizenship for her is about being a better parent: “My son is a U.S. citizen so I also want to be a citizen to raise him better.”
And after being sworn in as a citizen on Sept. 20, Cheapchon, the Irvine mother, said she looks forward to the benefits of citizenship, including a greater sense of security, ease during international travel — and finally being able to cast a ballot.
“I’m really looking forward to voting in the next election,” she said.