Immigrants Rush to Gain Citizenship

Surge is prompted by threat to cut public benefits for legal migrants

FOR most of the 12 years that have elapsed since he arrived in Miami from Cuba, Juan Valiente did not feel he needed to become a United States citizen. Legal resident status allowed him many rights and federal benefits -- and, besides, he always thought he might return to his native land.

But recently the retired factory worker heard that Congress is thinking about throwing legal immigrants who are not US citizens off Social Security and Medicaid rolls. Now, at a Little Havana civic center, he is learning US history and English ''in a hurry,'' so he can pass a citizenship exam.

He is far from alone. Across America, seats in citizenship classes are suddenly as popular as tickets to basketball star Michael Jordan's return.

Even legal immigrants who have been in this country for years are rushing to apply for citizenship, hoping to avoid an anti-immigrant backlash sweeping the country.

Nationally, citizenship applications jumped 78 percent in the first four months of fiscal 1995 (October through January) compared with a year earlier.

California, home to Proposition 187, a ballot initiative that denies government services to illegal immigrants, saw some of the sharpest increases. In Los Angeles, applications jumped some 300 percent.

City officials in San Antonio, Texas, have had to schedule extra citizenship ceremonies. And here in the Little Havana section of Miami, 15 civics centers have seen sign-ups for citizenship class go up by a third.

''Because [legal residence status] has been a traditionally safe status'' many immigrants didn't see the need to become citizens, says Ariela Rodriguez, director of social services for the Little Havana Activities and Nutrition Center. ''They worked, paid taxes, and are living on social security. They need supplementary assistance.''

A number of factors may lie behind this increase. For one, the Immigration and Naturalization Service now requires legal resident immigrants with ''green cards'' issued before 1979 to replace them with newer versions. Some have been opting for the full citizenship route, instead. For another, a pool of immigrants became eligible for citizenship in 1993, under the terms of a general amnesty law passed in 1986. Many of these candidates are now in the midst of citizenship application.

Proposed cuts in Congress

But anti-immigrant political pressure is still a major factor in citizenship decisions, according to many who teach or attend citizenship classes. House Republicans, following provisions contained in their Contract With America, are looking to save big money by cutting many government services for legal immigrants.

This week, revised legislation heads to the House floor that GOP sponsors say would cut welfare spending by $21 billion over five years. The bill would exclude noncitizens from the largest federal programs: Medicaid, food stamps, disability aid, Aid to Families With Dependent Children, and social service programs.

''When this bill becomes law we cannot feed someone with a green card,'' Ms. Rodriguez says. ''We have to ask for citizenship. The only thing we check now is age. This turns us into border guards. Everything that has public funds they cannot access.''

This part of the welfare-reform bill hits ground zero here in Miami. More than half the people who live in Florida's Dade County were born in some other country. Two of South Florida's Republican lawmakers, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Lincoln Diaz-Balart, refused to sign the Contract With America last fall because of this stipulation. Both were born in Cuba.

Most Cubans who fled to the US when Fidel Castro Ruz and his revolutionaries seized power three decades ago thought the US would overthrow Mr. Castro and they would soon return. ''Many thought exile was a temporary process,'' says Jose Espinosa, a Cuban-trained lawyer who has helped compatriots prepare for the citizenship exam in Little Havana since 1973. ''They were waiting to go back home, and the years went by.''

Not only Cubans

But the phenomenon is not limited to Cuban immigrants. Across the city in Little Haiti, the scramble for citizenship is the same. ''The demand has been overwhelming,'' says Jacques Despinosse, a community activist.

''The [citizenship application] form has become a hot commodity. People are coming here not knowing what to do. They paid their taxes; now the government wants to take it all away from them,'' he says. The bill has exceptions for seniors over 75 years old who have lived in the US for five years, and for anyone who fought in a war on the side of the US.

The Filipino, Chinese, and Jewish communities -- there are a large numbers of immigrants from the former Soviet Union -- are stepping up efforts to get immigrants to become citizens.

The rise in citizenship also is creating a potential new pool of voters, which both parties are courting. Traditionally Cubans have voted Republican, while Mexican Americans have voted Democratic.

But both parties are now less monolithic than they once were, and community organizers are counting on capitalizing on the voter shift.

''What we are hoping to do is to create a voting bloc where elected officials are having to realize the strength of the community. Of not taking for granted the Latino vote,'' says Robert Almanzan, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund in San Francisco.

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