Legal immigrants seek American citizenship in surging numbers
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The catalyst nationally, these observers say, is the passage last year of legislation in the US House sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R) of Wisconsin, which made "unlawful" presence in the US a felony, broadened definitions of immigrant violations, and gave law enforcement new tools to arrest, detain, and investigate illegal immigrants.Skip to next paragraph
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"This could be déjà vu all over again," says Ruth Milkman, director of the University of California, Los Angeles Institute of Industrial Relations and author of a book about immigrants and labor. "Sensenbrenner set the stage for the same kind of mobilizations nationally that happened here in California in the 1990s. The naturalization upsurge is just the beginning of a repeat scenario nationally."
Ms. Milkman and others note that those seeking naturalization are not in the US illegally. They are "the ones who have played by all the rules," obtaining green cards and establishing US residency for at least five years. But because a majority of illegal immigrants live in the same communities as legal permanent residents – and in many cases the same houses – they often act in solidarity when either group feels threatened.
The surge in citizenship applications counters claims by those who say Latinos don't want to assimilate into American life.
"These spikes of interest in naturalization counter the notions of middle-Americans who think Latinos do not want to integrate," says Belinda Reyes, assistant professor of Raza Studies in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University, who writes extensively about immigration. "Now you are seeing waves in bigger and bigger numbers that they do indeed want to participate. I think that will continue."
If the furor over immigration in general is the larger reason for more interest in citizenship, say NALEO officials and other spokesmen, the fee increase slated for June 1 is another. Because many immigrants and permanent legal residents are poor, the $275 hike is significant.
"When you multiply $275 by four or five [applicants in the same family], and then consider a family existing on less than $25,000 per year, you realize the hardship," says NALEO's Mr. Gaete. "That's why we are seeing a rush by many to avoid paying that additional fee."
US immigration officials caution against misinterpreting the latest rise in applications. Analysis of the past 100 years shows ebb and flows that defy easy explanation, they say.
"Numbers by themselves can be misleading," says Chris Rhatigan, USCIS national spokeswoman. "People have as many individual reasons for applying as there are people. We see this as just a normal part of what has gone on for 100 years."
But that's not what L.A. –based activist Randy Ertll sees. "The untold story of the past year is the fear and concerns generated in the immigrant community by talk of immigration reform," says the executive director of El Centro de Accion Social, a community organization that helps the low-income Latino community. "Immigrants eligible for citizenship are concerned laws might change for the worse and become more restrictive. So more and more are increasingly saying, 'It's time to join the system and change it for the better.' "