Legal immigrants seek American citizenship in surging numbers

Thirty years ago Andrea Sbardellati left Argentina for a 15-day US visit and never returned home. Now the head of her own Los Angeles-based company, she has three children and wants to become more politically active in her adopted country.

"The same kind of political abuse that used to go on in Argentina I am now seeing in the US," says Ms. Sbardellati, sitting in an office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, where she is filling out an application to become a US citizen. "I'm applying to become a citizen because I want to vote, to make a difference, to have a voice in democracy."

Just down the hall from where Sbardellati is filling out the requisite paperwork, a room of telephone operators logs inquiries from thousands like her. More than anytime in 10 years, say NALEO officials, the calls and applications are flooding in.

Helped by the push of a coalition of 200 organizations here in southern California – including twice-daily pleas from the leading Latino TV station and full-page ads in La Opinion, the leading Spanish-language newspaper – a 150 percent increase in applications has been tallied: 7,334 in January 2006 compared to 18,024 in January 2007. Nationwide, the increase is 79 percent, from 53,390 to 95,622, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

"The battle cry is 'Ya Es Hora. Ciudadania!' (It's time. Citizenship!)," says Marcelo Gaete, senior programs director for NALEO, which helps applicants with the process. "The response has been so strong that at times we have a hard time keeping up."

The increase here – expected to be even sharper in March and April – is fueled by three factors, observers say. First is an increased desire by America's 8 million permanent legal residents to vote – the key benefit of citizenship – spurred by a year of debate over immigration policy and massive demonstrations in large US cities.

Second is a proposed fee increase to apply for citizenship effective June 1 – from $400 to $675. Third is revisions in the civics test applicants must pass to become citizens, now being tested in several cities and rolled out in 2008.

"Over the past year there has been a very intensive national discussion over immigration, which has raised the political consciousness of those millions who are in the US legally but are not yet citizens," says Roslyn Gold, chief counsel for NALEO. A similar surge happened in 1994 after California passed Proposition 187, denying public services to illegal immigrants, she says. What happened in California after Gov. Pete Wilson (R) famously championed Prop. 187 is happening again, but on a national scale, say several observers. Protest marches have led to mobilization drives for those eligible to obtain citizenship. That, in turn, led to increased Latino voter registration, which led to more Latino voting power and the ascension of key Latino politicians – L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez among them.

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.

"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.' "

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