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INS Offices See a Run on Citizenship : Immigration: As Congress debates benefit cuts, would-be Americans fill out forms in record numbers. Issues such as Prop. 187 also spur rush.

March 21, 1995|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and MIKE CLARY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MIAMI — Raul E. Dominguez immigrated from Cuba seven years ago, but only now has he applied for citizenship and enrolled in a class here to study the Constitution, the American Revolution and the abbreviations of the 50 states.

Dominguez is doing so, at the tender age of 73, because Congress has threatened to cut off many federal benefits for legal immigrants. In his view, becoming a citizen is the only way to guarantee that he will continue to receive his monthly $345 Supplemental Security Income check.

Legal immigrants such as Dominguez are streaming into Immigration and Naturalization Service offices across the country in record numbers, and applications for citizenship surged to 234,000 nationwide from October, 1994, to January, 1995--nearly 80% more than in the same period the previous year.

The increases are even more striking--up 120%, from 46,600 to 101,800, over the same period--in the agency's Western Region, which is Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.

Largely responsible is the Republican welfare reform bill, which the House begins to debate today, because it would make legal immigrants ineligible for dozens of federal programs, ranging from school lunches to Aid to Families With Dependent Children.

A new analysis by the Department of Health and Human Services found that 2.2 million legal immigrants would lose benefits under the Republican plan.

Also contributing to the stampede for citizenship is Proposition 187, which California voters approved in November. It denies government assistance to illegal immigrants, but many legal residents find it threatening.

"We have found a lot of people who are feeling pressure to become citizens because of welfare reform legislation and Proposition 187," said INS spokesman Rudolph Brewington.

At the INS district office in Los Angeles, more than three times as many applications for citizenship were received from October, 1994, to January, 1995, as during the same period a year earlier, according to the agency.

But for most applicants here, receiving welfare benefits was not the prime motivation, according to Richard Rogers, the agency's district director.

"They want a voice. They want to be able to vote on issues that are near and dear to them, especially since so much of what is in the news concerns immigrant issues," Rogers said in a telephone interview. His district covers seven counties in the Los Angeles area.

Many immigrants who receive benefits have been in the country the five years necessary to be eligible for citizenship. The surge of immigrants applying for citizenship could diminish the $21 billion in savings that Republican leaders expect to derive from their welfare overhaul.

"Eighty percent of those people within two years will be citizens," said Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.), whose district in Miami is heavily weighted with immigrants from Cuba. "There has been an alert sent out. We are being targeted. It's risky to be a legal immigrant."

Diaz-Balart is one of only a few Republicans who have declared their intentions to vote against the GOP welfare reform bill. He cannot support it, he said, because it "for the first time targets, singles out and discriminates against people because of their naturalization status."

"Citizenship has just not been very important in this society before," said Michael Fix, an immigrant specialist at the Urban Institute, a research center in Washington. "It hasn't been very important in determining what you can and cannot do. So there was not a particularly powerful imperative to be naturalized."

Republicans argued that immigrants always have been required to provide proof that they would not become public wards in most cases, but in recent years welfare benefits have become a magnet drawing people to the country for the wrong reasons.

"If after five years they still are not prepared to pledge their allegiance, we should say, you're on your own or go back to your country," Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley) said.

The rush to preserve benefits has shown up throughout Dade County, Florida's adult education system, which has waiting lists for citizenship classes.

Argelia G. Nunez, assistant principal of adult education classes at Miami's Coral Park High School, said that immigrants calling to enroll in naturalization classes often sound desperate.

"They have heard they are going to lose benefits, and they want to register right now," she said.

The 20 people in Maricel Mayor's class Monday in the Westchester section of Miami were all Spanish speakers, singing two verses of "America, the Beautiful," memorizing the abbreviations for all 50 states and trying to comprehend how Congress can override a presidential veto.

Juana Estrada, 60, spent four years in a Cuban prison for anti-Castro activities before arriving in Miami in 1988. She was a factory worker in Havana, but a nervous condition has left her unable to hold a job here. She lives on food stamps and about $450 a month in disability payments.

"I always intended to apply for citizenship because I want to vote," she said. "But I am in class now because of what I heard."

Rosda Behar, a divorced woman of 48 who arrived in Miami 15 years ago during the Mariel boat lift, said she has been diagnosed with manic depression. Unable to work, and with one child at home, she depends on food stamps and a monthly Supplemental Security Income check of $458.

"I'm afraid of being in the street," she said. "I support taking benefits away from those who don't need them, but I do."

Mayor is disturbed that many would-be citizens are attending her classes now solely to preserve their financial benefits.

"You should become a citizen because you want to participate in this country, not just to save a paycheck."

Shogren, a Times staff writer, reported from Washington and Clary, a special correspondent, reported from Miami. Staff writer James Bornemeier contributed from Washington.

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