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Aloha has immigrants striving for citizenship


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Aloha has immigrants striving for citizenship

Source: Honolulu Star Bulletin

When it comes to welcoming immigrants, the aloha spirit is alive and well in the islands.

Hawaii is among states where foreigners are twice as likely to become American citizens because its residents are receptive toward immigrants, according to a recent study.

Research by University of California-Irvine demographers checked whether the promise of welfare was the main reason for more legal immigrants to seek naturalization after the 1996 Welfare Reform Act, which restricted many benefits to U.S. citizens.

What the study found, however, was that greater welfare benefits offered in individual states did not lead to significantly higher naturalization rates in those places. The data runs counter to speculation that money is the driving force behind an immigrant's desire to gain citizenship.

In fact, professors Susan K. Brown and Frank D. Bean revealed a much stronger link between a community's attitude of acceptance toward immigrants and the rate of naturalization.

Hawaii, Brown said, "was in that list of states that don't give high benefits but are welcoming."

In 2005, 6,480 people received permanent legal residency in Hawaii, 75 more than in the previous year. Meanwhile, 4,663 islanders became naturalized U.S. citizens that same year, a number more than twice as high as in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In the past decade, more than 37,000 people became American citizens in the state.

KahBo Dye-Chiew, a Honolulu immigration attorney with Goodsill Anderson Quinn & Stifel LLP, said Hawaii's mix of liberal and ethnically diverse population, as well as its record-low unemployment rate, appeals to foreigners.

She also noted that immigration is part of Hawaii's history, citing the thousands of Filipino plantation workers who arrived in the early and mid-1900s. "I'm not surprised to see that Hawaii is considered to be friendly to immigrants," said Dye-Chiew, herself a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Malaysia.

When she moved here in 1990, Dye-Chiew said, she did not feel "singled out," because there were so many Asians that looked like her.

"I feel very comfortable over here," she said. "I feel like I'm at home here in Hawaii."

The UC-Irvine study appears in the current issue of Social Forces and was co-authored by Jennifer Van Hook, associate professor of sociology at Bowling Green State University. Besides Hawaii, other places where residents view immigrants as hard-working and beneficial included Arizona, the District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland and Michigan, among others.

States in which residents had unfavorable opinions on immigrants -- and, as a result, lower naturalization rates -- were Utah, Colorado, South Carolina and New Hampshire.

In 2000, 17.5 percent of Hawaii residents reported being foreign-born, compared with only 4.4 percent in New Hampshire and 2.9 percent in South Carolina, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Observers say immigrants are motivated to seek citizenship because it allows them to stay in the country without having to renew work or student visas, and it gives them job security, the right to vote and the ability to sponsor a relative who wants to live in America.

Melba Bantay of Catholic Charities Hawaii said that each year, her office helps some 450 immigrants find jobs, learn how to drive and maintain legal status in the state. Most who seek her services are Chinese, Vietnamese, Micronesian, Filipinos, Marshallese and Hispanics.

Workers at the Catholic Charities offices in Honolulu, Kona and Hilo speak 10 different languages to properly serve immigrants, Bantay said.

"They really want a better future for their children, and they want to become part of the community. We support them all the way because they become contributing citizens of our community," she said. "That is really their dream."

State Your Claim

A University of California-Irvine study compared states based on how receptive they are toward immigrants and the financial benefits they offer to foreigners who become U.S. citizens. Here is how states ranked:

Low benefits/high receptivity: Hawaii, Arizona, District of Columbia, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Washington

High benefits/moderate receptivity: Connecticut, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York and Rhode Island

Low benefits/low receptivity: Arkansas, Colorado, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, Maine/Vermont, North Dakota and South Dakota :(

High benefits/high receptivity: Illinois and Wisconsin

Source: "For Love or Money? Welfare Reform and Immigrant Naturalization"

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