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Citizenship Programs Help Ease the Process


Daniel Castillo Sr., 78, and his wife, Rubecinda, 76, of El Monte decided it was time for their voices to be heard on issues affecting their adopted country of 16 years. So the two Salvadorans recently completed their application for U.S. citizenship at a community workshop.

Luz Maria Villalobos, 28, of South Gate echoed similar sentiments at the same workshop at Lincoln High School. But Villalobos, a native of Leon, Mexico, who works as an assistant manager for Transamerica, also believes that citizenship will ease her climb up the management ladder.

The three future citizens are only droplets in a huge pool of citizenship applications expected to flow into U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service offices this year.

Community organizers believe that a growing awareness of the benefits of naturalization will increase the numbers of eligible Latinos requesting citizenship. And that's not counting an estimated 1 million additional California Latinos who have completed their five-year residency requirement under the 1986 U.S. amnesty program for undocumented immigrants. Nationwide, 3 million amnesty recipients from all over the world will become eligible for naturalization this year.

The National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, known as NALEO, and Hermandad Mexicana are two of the organizations that are operating citizenship programs with the blessing of the INS.

These and other organizations hold regular workshops designed to ease the application process and provide a less intimidating environment than going through the INS.

"You can never reach a person on the telephone at the Immigration Service," said Maria Lopez, a Mexican native who has two daughters who were born in the United States. She was among would-be citizens who attended a NALEO workshop in South Los Angeles.

Maria Sevilla, another workshop participant, said: "Here, there are people who help us who speak Spanish." Sevilla, a 69-year-old native of El Salvador, arrived in the United States almost half a century ago but only now is signing up for citizenship.

Latino immigrants, particularly those from Mexico, traditionally are among the newcomers least likely to seek citizenship. The sponsors of the workshops hope to start changing that tradition.

Harry Pachon, executive director of NALEO, said he expects the naturalization process for the amnesty recipients to give impetus to the estimated 1.7 million Latinos in Los Angeles County who have been eligible for citizenship but have never sought it.

Pachon, professor of political science at Pitzer College in Claremont, said the voting strength that could result from the groundswell of potential citizens is sizable. "It could alter the political landscape of California," he said, adding that it could be felt most specifically in Southern California and Houston.

NALEO studies of U.S. Census data indicates that in California 37% of all Latino adults who are U.S. citizens turn out at the polls. If only half of California's 1 million newly eligible amnesty recipients gain citizenship, the Latino vote could swell by more than 150,000.

"At the local level, elections are frequently won or lost by narrow margins of 1,000 or 2,000 votes," Pachon noted.

In 1988, NALEO was one of the first organizations to set up citizenship workshops. More than 10,000 people nationwide and 7,000 in California have filed their applications with the INS through NALEO. The Los Angeles-based organization is accelerating its workshop schedule and plans at least one per month in the L.A. area for the rest of the year. Each workshop averages about 300 applications.

Another agency active with an INS-approved naturalization program is Hermandad Mexicana, a Latino social services organization. In addition to offering instruction in U.S. history, civics, and English as a second language, applicants are given citizenship exams as an alternative to taking the tests before INS examiners.

The exam consists of 20 multiple-choice questions on U.S. history and government. Along with a passing score on the exam, candidates must also demonstrate a basic command of English by correctly writing at least one of two dictated sentences.

Hermandad offers the exams at 15 centers every month. It has administered 12,000 tests since it started offering them a year ago. Other organizations, including some community colleges, also offer citizenship tests.

The citizenship test program is administered nationwide through the offices of the Educational Testing Service in Pasadena. ETS scores the exam, notifies the candidates of the results and certifies the score to the INS.

About 50,000 naturalization hopefuls have taken the ETS exam nationwide in the last year, said Reynaldo Baca, ETS program director. Baca says that this is a tip-of-the-iceberg figure and that ETS is gearing up for a large increase in volume by arranging for testing through 300 centers nationwide.

Pachon believes that the amnesty recipients will find success in achieving citizenship. "These people have already been exposed to the INS and to its paperwork through the amnesty process," he said.

Richard Martinez, executive director of Southwest Voter Registration and Education Project, applauded the growing visibility of the naturalization programs. He cited as one example the adult instructional program offered by the Los Angeles Unified School District. This program, free to applicants and paid for with federal funds, prepares them for the citizenship test. It is available at about 60 facilities in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

Times staff writer Patrick J. McDonnell contributed to this article.

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