Proving That 'We Are Useful Citizens'

Claudia Pedroza took a long lunch break one day last month. She left her office a legal resident and returned later that day an American citizen.

In between, she waited in a long line in the steamy afternoon air for about half an hour and then, flanked by 866 other naturalization applicants in a community college gymnasium north of Houston, held up her right hand and repeated an oath of allegiance to her adopted country.

The words, like the entire naturalization process, came easily to her. That's because she has lived in the United States, in Houston, since she was seven years old. In fact, with less accent than her birth in Chihuahua, Mexico, would seem to warrant, the only hint of her status as a noncitizen would have been to spot her in the line at North Harris College on June 21.

"I've lived here all my life," the 28-year-old accountant explains. "I'm going to live here all my life. And I want to be able to vote and be more active in my community."

She applied for her citizenship 1-1/2 years ago. The citizenship test posed no problem: The study of American history and government was part of her education as a child growing up in Houston.

To her, becoming a citizen is largely a change of legal status rather than heritage. Nevertheless, she says, anti-immigrant sentiments - much of it seemingly aimed at those from Central and Latin America - is increasingly being expressed in Washington and the nation. As a Mexican native, she feels she has something to prove.

"I just want to be more involved, so we can prove we can be useful citizens," Mrs. Pedroza says. "We're not all ignorant."

Pedroza has two degrees, in psychology and sociology, from the University of Houston. That's where she met her husband of four months, Arturo Pedroza, who has been here for two years, studying English.

He also plans to apply for citizenship this year, though his reason varies a bit from hers: "She's my wife. I have to live here."

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