By James Tabafunda
Northwest Asian Weekly
Becoming a U.S. citizen can remain just a dream or be too difficult for many who are born outside of the country.
Not so for JoJo Tran, 61, a native of Vietnam. He has the diligence necessary to endure the long process of becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, which involves passing a test on the English, U.S. history, and government, among other requirements.
As one of 84 people representing 38 countries, he realized his dream on April 18 at the Seattle field office of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
Tukwila Mayor and keynote speaker Allan Ekberg said to the group, “May your journey as a United States citizen begin here today and may it be prosperous to you and your loved ones.” Tran’s loved ones — wife Saray Thach and son Tano — joined him in becoming U.S. citizens.
They recited the Oath of Allegiance, declaring their loyalty to the U.S. Constitution and their commitment to their adopted country.
“I feel humbled and honored to become a citizen, not only myself, but with my family,” he said.
In the 1990s, he worked as a tour guide in Vietnam. A group of travelers — one he would later find out was made up of ex-U.S. Navy Seals — made a request that would change his life. They wanted to travel to the Mekong Delta to see a restricted area. Tran agreed to the unscheduled stopover, which led to his detainment by Vietnamese government officials.
Carol L. Edward, of the Seattle- and Mount Vernon-based law firm Carol L. Edward & Associates, is Tran’s immigration lawyer. She started working with Tran in 2009.
“He was penalized because of work he had done helping others,” she said.
Tran faced more obstacles after arriving in the United States in 1996, including the denial of his first request for asylum in 1997.
“When you’re applying for asylum, there’s a legal standard, and it’s not whether or not your congressman likes you or thinks that you deserve it,” Edward said. “It’s more based upon you meeting the different criteria. Do you have a well-founded fear of persecution in your home country?”
“But what was really great about his case is that he did have people who knew what had happened to him in Vietnam, ex-military who came forward and actually helped him in his case.”
Despite facing one setback after another, he continued doing work that helped others, including long hours of growing produce at the Cascade P-Patch for people in need. He also volunteered for such organizations as the Seattle Housing and Resource Effort, Catholic Community Services, and the American Red Cross. By early 2009, Tran had completed more than 9,000 hours of community service, an achievement so great that public recognition and a lot of awards quickly followed.
“He glowed with such peace and joy,” recalls Seattle resident Clarena Snyder, about meeting gardener Tran for the first time. She was one of about two dozen supporters from different groups attending the naturalization ceremony.
Before one deportation hearing, she said, “I sent emails around to as many Quakers as I could, because I live and work in the Quaker community. And I think there were 34 Quakers that showed up in court, and the judge was impressed.”
Snyder said, “I just feel deeply connected to them because of the spirit of joy that the family embodies.”
Edward encourages those who are permanent residents and are thinking about applying for U.S. citizenship to first “reach out to local attorneys or the different nonprofit organizations” and then complete a naturalization application. The City of Seattle also sponsors citizenship clinics and workshops throughout the year.
“The process of seeking asylum is quite complicated, and it often takes a lot of time, and that’s always been the hardest part,” she said. For JoJo Tran, it has taken 22 years to complete his immigration journey.
“His case was won really because of the fact that he met the legal criteria,” she said. “It’s the end of a struggle to show that he’s deserving to be here.”
For more information on City of Seattle citizenship workshops and clinics, go to seattle.gov/iandraffairs/programs/new-citizen-campaign.
James Tabafunda can be reached at email@example.com.