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Flood of Legal Immigrants Seeks to Become Citizens

NY Times | July 5, 2007
JULIA PRESTON

The number of legal immigrants seeking to become United States citizens is surging, officials say, prompted by imminent increases in processing fees for naturalization applications, citizenship drives across the country and new feelings of insecurity in immigrant communities.

The citizenship campaigns have tapped into the recent uneasiness that legal immigrants, especially Hispanics, say is the result of months of caustic national debate over an immigration bill that failed in the Senate last week. While illegal immigrants were the center of attention in the debate, it prompted many legal immigrants who have set down roots in this country to seek the security of citizenship, as well as its voting power, immigrant advocates said.

Numbers of new naturalized citizens have been growing steadily in recent years, to 702,589 in 2006 from 463,204 in 2003. But a big jump came this year, with the number of naturalization applications rising every month, to 115,175 in May compared with 65,782 in December 2006.

More than 4,000 new Americans were sworn in yesterday in tradition-steeped Fourth of July ceremonies around the country, as well as some not so traditional events. About 1,000 people from 75 countries took their oaths together by the spires of Cinderella's Magic Kingdom castle at Disney World in Orlando, as Gloria Estefan crooned “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In Iraq, 325 foreign-born soldiers who are fighting in the United States military took the oath in two separate ceremonies.

For many immigrants, worry turned into action after a Jan. 31 announcement by the federal agency Citizenship and Immigration Services that it would raise its application fees. Under the new fees, which take effect July 30, it will cost $675 to become a naturalized citizen, up almost 69 percent from the current $400.

Immigrants have also been mobilized to press ahead with naturalization applications by a television and radio campaign that Univision, the national Spanish-language network, began in California in January. The campaign, drew support form personalities like the Los Angeles radio host Eduardo Sotelo, known as El Piolín or Tweety Bird, has directed immigrants to some 350 workshop centers run by churches and community organizations in 22 cities. There they receive English lessons and advice about meeting requirements and filling out forms.

One radio listener was Angel Ivan Alvarez, a 24-year-old legal immigrant from Mexico who said he never thought of becoming a citizen until last week when the Senate bill was voted down. The bill, a bipartisan compromise supported by President Bush, would have granted legal status to illegal immigrants, among other measures. After it was rejected, Mr. Alvarez, a realtor from Whittier, Calif., took down information from Mr. Sotelo's show and registered in a local citizenship workshop.

“I realized that I want to be able to vote and speak up for my people because they are not getting enough support,” Mr. Alvarez said in a telephone interview yesterday. “I want everybody to be able to come out of the shadows.”

Federico Gutiérrez, 53, a longtime legal resident of Chicago who was born in Mexico, said that big immigrant protests in March of last year in support of an immigration overhaul made him decide it was time to engage in American politics. When the debate turned angry, he wanted to be able to influence lawmakers whom he believed were pro-immigrant, Mr. Gutiérrez said.

He prepared his application and brushed up on his American history and English in classes offered by the New Americans Initiative, a citizenship campaign financed by the state of Illinois. He became a citizen in May.

“Now if I don't like the way things are going, I can let the government know my opinion,” Mr. Gutierrez said in a telephone interview.

Some legal immigrants, particularly Hispanics, have said they were unfairly tarred in the debate over the Senate bill, which was defeated in part due to vehement opposition from conservatives who said it was amnesty for immigrant lawbreakers.

“A lot of people who are here legally are made to feel like lepers,” said Rachel Duverge, 24, a Florida resident born in the Dominican Republic who was among the new citizens sworn in today in Orlando. Ms. Duverge said she became a citizen in part because she is eager to vote in the presidential election next year. President Bush, she said, “has not handled immigration well.”

To become citizens, immigrants must be legal permanent residents who have lived continuously in the United States for five years. They must have a clean criminal record and pass tests to show they are proficient in English and have a basic knowledge of American history and government.

Immigrant advocates say the looming fee increase has been a decisive incentive to working class immigrants to take action, especially when more than one family member is eligible to become a citizen.

“Before, they said, I can do it anytime,” said Catherine Salgado, spokeswoman for the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago. “Now it's not anytime anymore.” She said the new fee of $675 is a week's wages for many of the immigrants who have applied to naturalize through workshops organized by the coalition.

The immigration agency is also redesigning the civics and English tests that citizenship candidates have to pass, and many immigrants fear they will become more challenging.

The Univision citizenship campaign had a greater impact than even its organizers expected, especially in California, said Maryam Banikaram, chief marketing officer for the company. She said the campaign was planned as part of Univision's regular nonpartisan public service efforts.

“If you become a U.S. citizen you have better opportunities,” she said, explaining the thinking behind the campaign. “We're just giving you the tools to make that a reality.”

The campaign took off after the immigration debate became major news for Univision and Mr. Sotelo used his racy comic radio show as a soapbox to support legal status for illegal immigrants.

Other immigrants are concerned about locking in economic gains they have made as legal residents.

“A prime motivator is security for the family and for employment,” said Javier Angulo, director of civic education for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, a national Hispanic group that organized workshops in connection with the Univision campaign. “People don't feel that being permanent residents is enough to secure their future in this country. They would just feel more secure as citizens,” he said.

Mr. Gutiérrez, the new citizen in Chicago, said he started out life in a corn-growing village in central Mexico, and has been employed as a factory worker most of the time since coming to the United States in 1979. He has two adult sons who are United States citizens.

“I will always have Mexican blood,” Mr. Gutierrez said, enjoying a day of rest on his first Fourth of July as an American. “But my heart is here.”

 

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