When Hahn W. Lee first came to the United States in 1980, the college student had some reservations about becoming a U.S. citizen. The reasons were rooted in his perceptions of American society, which were less than glowing.
Racism, corruption, garish crimes, a breakdown of family values--these were some of the social ills that caused the thoughtful young man, now a 29-year-old Hollywood resident, to question whether joining the club would be worth the cost of membership.
Like Lee, many immigrants in Los Angeles find it's not easy to make up their minds about becoming citizens for a variety of reasons.
According to Latino politicians, when Latinos hesitate often it is because they believe there are no real benefits to citizenship and that the exam will be too difficult. Chinese are given pause by emotional ties to China and by tax considerations, community leaders say.
And the most daunting barrier for Russian immigrants, many of whom are elderly, is the difficulty of learning English, say social-service providers.
In the Korean community in Los Angeles County, which numbered 145,000 people in 1990, 50% to 60% have chosen to remain Korean citizens--according to estimates of the Korean American Coalition--even though some have lived here as long as 20 years.
That has changed sharply in recent years, with droves of Koreans applying for citizenship in the wake of the riots, Proposition 187, and proposals to bar legal immigrants from receiving federal benefits. Still, the question remains: Why haven't more Koreans jumped at the chance to become Americans?
For many, especially senior citizens, it's not that they don't want to become a citizen, it's that they find it difficult to pass the naturalization agency's test, which includes questions about American government and history and is given only in English. But others are reluctant to commit to a society that may discriminate against them, something Lee had feared.
Others don't want to give up their property in Korea, which they would have to do if they became U.S. citizens under South Korean law. China also forbids foreigners from owning land, while Mexico places certain restrictions on their property rights. Foreigners are also barred from doing business in certain fields, such as law in Korea, telecommunications in China and the oil business in Mexico.
Other Koreans are less concerned about losing their property rights than they are about losing their sense of identity.
Lee said the bleak living situation in which he found himself when he first came to this country contributed to his doubts. He divided his first four years between Korea and the United States, finishing his education at the prestigious Yonsei University in Seoul and working in the States to earn his tuition. Lee, who spoke little English when he arrived, worked on the assembly line in meat-packing and car-parts factories, and also tried his hand at butchery and carpentry.
"I thought of myself as a top-class candidate for a job in Korea, but after a 14-hour plane ride [to the United States], I couldn't get a job," Hahn said, smiling ruefully.
Ironically, it was the negative aspects of American society that finally ended up persuading Lee to become a citizen, a process that concluded last fall. As a reporter for the Korea Times in New York and later Los Angeles, he became profoundly affected by the issues that he covered--including the Los Angeles riots--and came to feel he could make a greater difference in this country than in Korea.
"There are ways I can serve the people of this country, including Korean Americans, with my talent, that is, promoting understanding among different racial groups," Lee said. "To do that job, one necessary thing was getting U.S. citizenship."
Unlike Lee, Jung Sung Kim, a 70-year-old retiree, always dreamed of U.S. citizenship. There is one problem. He only recently passed the five-year residency requirement for citizenship, and at his advanced age he is finding it difficult to learn enough English to pass the citizenship test.
Five days a week, the Downtown resident and avid hiker attends free English classes at Ardmore Park in Koreatown, attempting to spoon vocabulary and grammar into his head faster than the amazing rate at which it seems to disappear. Nights, Kim studies at his desk with the words to the "Star-Spangled Banner" secured under its glass top.
"I've studied English for three years and forgotten three years' worth of English," he said through an interpreter, laughing and shaking his head.
According to Dan Park, coordinator of the Korean American Coalition's citizenship project, some Korean seniors want to become citizens primarily so as not to lose their benefits, while others also want to participate in American political life.
Kim belongs to the latter group.
"If I'm going to live here, I want to live here as an American and be a citizen," said Kim, who filed for citizenship in February. "I want to be able to vote and be a part of the political process."