A boom in citizenship requests

Sept. 11 was the defining moment for many immigrants to decide just how American they have become.

Driven by post-9/11 uncertainty - including the mixed feelings of vulnerability in and solidarity with their new homeland - immigrants across the US are rushing to apply for citizenship.

Applications for naturalization in October and November were up 61 percent over the same period last year, the most recent Immigration and Naturalization data show. The rate of increase rivals the wave of citizenship applications during World War II, an era reflecting some of the same tensions and emotions the nation faces now.

"I suspect for every generation of immigrants, there is this moment of truth when something big happens. Something that gives them an opportunity to reflect on just how American they've become," says Cecilia Muñoz, vice president for policy at the National Council of La Raza in Washington. "They ask themselves, 'Do we go back to where we came from or do we stay?' That's when they realize that this is their home now - that they feel truly American - and move to make it official."

José Vega, a Houston immigration attorney, vouches for that.

"Right after Sept. 11, there was kind of a lull. But then everybody kind of woke up and realized what was going on," he says. "People are worried."

Before 9/11 he may have gotten one call per week from someone asking about the citizenship application process. Today, he receives at least one call a day.

Applications for citizenship stood at 145,765 for October and November of 2001 - compared with the 90,741 filed during the same two months in 2000. But even more striking is just the month of November 2001, when the numbers showed a 99 percent increase over the previous November. Data for December and January are not yet available.

While there is no section on the application that asks why a person applies, INS officials speculate that there are several reasons for the increase.

"Traditionally, we see in times of national crisis a sharpening in the recognition of the difference between citizens and immigrants, and a greater recognition of what citizenship really means," says Russ Bergeron, an INS spokesman in Washington. "So it's not surprising to see a large number of people motivated to apply right now."

MR. BERGERON and his colleagues are hearing that some immigrants are motivated by patriotism or want to be fully engaged in the American political process. Others see citizenship as a protection in troubled times when immigrants often become scapegoats.

"It's a combination of patriotic fervor and insecurity of non-citizens," says Mark Krikorian, of the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies. "Arabs are not the only immigrants right now that feel that it might be a good idea to become a citizen and dispel Americans' concerns about their loyalties."

Another possible factor in the increase in applications is a $45 fee increase scheduled for Feb. 19. The fee is an issue for many immigrants showing up recently to beat the deadline at the Asian Law Alliance in San Jose, an organization that offers legal assistance to low-income residents.

Still others "are getting nervous and don't know what might happen to them if they don't get their citizenship," says alliance attorney Kristen Hatanaka. She calculates that her group has had a 40 percent increase in filings by immigrants from such places as Vietnam, China, and Iran.

Indeed, lawyers say fear might be the overriding factor causing this spike. The number of people asking for help in filing citizenship papers at the Texas Center for Immigrant Legal Assistance in Houston, for instance, has doubled since Sept. 11.

"We are getting a lot of people who think they have become suspects," says Wafa Abdin, an attorney at the center. "They feel that getting their citizenship now will give them more protection."

The last significant spike in citizenship applications - the largest spike ever - came in the mid-1990s. Applications during this time went up by 500 percent, topping the previous record set in 1944. Several factors drove that increase. Social service and welfare reforms - both local and national - left immigrants without many previously accessible benefits. Congress passed the Anti-terrorism and Illegal Immigration Reform acts in 1996, which greatly expanded the reasons for which immigrants could be deported. And at that time, the last group of immigrants granted amnesty in 1986 were finally eligible to apply for citizenship. (A legal permanent resident must wait five years before applying to become a citizen).

"A lot of immigrants said, 'You know what? I've got to vote,' " Ms. Muñoz says of that era. "The ugly environment inspired many of them to take that final step and gain full access to their rights."

In this latest round of applications, one thing is certain: Immigrants from all countries are now acutely aware of the distinction between being a citizen and not.

"A lot of people who have been legal permanent residents for 30, 40, even 50 years have come to me since Sept. 11 and said, 'I want to be a citizen,' "says Emilia Bañuelos, an immigration attorney in Phoenix.

"One reason is because of a fear that they could get deported," she says. "The other is a feeling that they are American, and that emotionally they need to take that extra step."

Mexicans, for instance, who used to cross the border effortlessly now spend hours at the checkpoints, having to explain their immigration status.

"People see citizenship as some sort of progression and expression of loyalty to the United States," says Tatcho Mindiola, director of the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Houston. "Let's face it, it comes with less hassle in this country, all up and down the line."

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