Skip to main content
Civic ParticipationNAKASEC in the NewsNational

“Reviving the American Dream” NAKASEC op-ed in The Progressive, 9/17/2008

By September 17, 2008No Comments


Author: HyunJoo Lee, NAKASEC

Today, Sept. 17, is Citizenship Day.

It’s a day of joy for immigrants who have waited many years to participate fully in the American Dream.

But it’s a day many law-abiding immigrants may never get to celebrate.

Backlogs of citizenship applications lead to waits up to five years, and family-sponsored immigration can now take up to two decades.

In a country where immigrants help fuel innovation, economic growth and prosperity, we must streamline this process so that dreams are cultivated, not destroyed.

Meet John Yi and Kyunghee Kim, two Korean Americans who came to the United States with big dreams and ideas. Their efforts to become citizens took a combined sum of 19 years, but their stories remind us that the immigrant spirit is an exuberant one.

As a 26-year-old immigrant to the United States, John Yi’s American dream was to play the keyboard. With a wife and four children, his dream expanded to include a future of opportunity and security. He wanted his children to go to college, lead healthy lives and gain successful careers. When John applied for citizenship, what he did not anticipate was an unexpected five-year wait. It was during this period that he lost his restaurant business and his home. It was a trying period for the entire family. When the letter finally arrived at his home with the date of his naturalization ceremony, it was with a heavy heart that he opened the letter.

Kyunghee’s mother applied to bring her daughter and son to the United States, where the rest of her family had immigrated years earlier. After 10 long years, their visa was finally approved and they came to the United States in 1998. Along with her mother and brother, Kyunghee applied for citizenship. While the rest of her family swiftly went through the process, Kyunghee’s application was held up because it was “pending FBI investigation.” What FBI investigation? She kept asking herself that question, one her family worried about for four years. Deep relief swept over her and her family when she received the letter that finalized her citizenship process.

The day of her naturalization ceremony, I met her outside the Los Angeles Convention Center. Her mother was close to her side, and as I congratulated Kyunghee, she smiled and waved her certificate. I asked her if she felt any different and what the word “citizen” meant to her. She looked at me behind big sunglasses and said that it was just a piece of paper; it is what you do with it that brings meaning to it.

For her, it was having the right to vote and exercising that right; to have your voice heard and make change.

John told me a similar thing when I posed the same question to him one late Friday afternoon. The word “citizen” means nothing on its own, he said. But the fact that now I can vote and have a say in who my leaders will be means everything.

Like John and Kyunghee, millions of Americans come to the United States in search for something better.

We must work to make that journey a dignified one.

And we can do that, one vote at a time.

HyunJoo Lee is the national organizing coordinator for the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium, based in Los Angeles. She can be reached at


published on September 17, 2008 in The Progressive   

published on September 17, 2008 in the Modesto Bee

published on September 17, 2008 in the Island Packet online

published on September 17, 2008 in the News and Observer

published on September 17, 2008 in the Tri-City Herald

published on September 17, 2008 in the Fresno Bee

published on September 17, 2008 in the Bellingham Herald

published on September 17, 2008 in the Lake Wylie Pilot