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Workshop Makes It Easier for Many to Take the Step Toward Citizenship : Conference turns usually daunting process of dealing with INS into a single, user-friendly event.

October 05, 1995|LEILA COBO HANLON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It was citizenship as easy as one, two, three.

Five thousand legal U.S. residents converged at the Los Angeles Convention Center last weekend in what organizers said was the biggest citizenship workshop in the nation, going through the filing, fingerprinting and photographing process in just a few hours and at no cost, except for the standard INS $95 processing fee.

At the end of the U.S. Citizenship Day '95, sponsored by the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, most attendees were one step closer to becoming citizens after years of residency in this country.

"It was very good and very easy," said Jesus Valenzuela, 35, a Mexican national who emerged from the Convention Center three hours after entering. "If I had filed any other way it would have been too expensive. Now I can vote, be somebody. Be part of the country in other ways."

Like many others who made appointments to attend the workshop, Valenzuela had simply been waiting to fulfill the five years of permanent legal residency required before applying for citizenship.

But others such as Telma Perez, who left her native Cuba 35 years ago, said they simply had not felt like going through the arduous citizenship process before.

"Now, I want to vote," she said. "Because I'm seeing everything [negative] that's happening with us Latinos, and we have to unite to make a difference.

By having united, we've been able to hold this today," she added, gesturing toward the rows and rows of people filling applications with the aid of more than 2,000 trained volunteers recruited from high schools, colleges and corporations.

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Unity indeed played a big role in the citizenship day. To ensure that as many people as possible knew about the event, the association enlisted the help of the Spanish-language media in the Los Angeles area, including television, radio and print.

"As far as I know, this is the first time all Spanish-language media have joined in a single effort," said Claudia Camarena, public relations manager for KVEA-TV, Channel 52. "Our contribution was, between the three television stations [KVEA, KMEX, Channel 34 and KWHY, Channel 22] we aired a total of 120 spots during prime time," Camarena said. "So regardless of what people were watching, they saw the spots."

The campaign was so effective, that two weeks after promotions began, all appointment slots were filled.

"This event could easily have been larger," said Arturo Vargas, the association's executive director. "This is an indication of the strong desire that currently exists among permanent residents to take the next step and become citizens."

The goal of Citizenship Day '95 was to turn the usually daunting process of dealing with immigration officials into a single, user-friendly event that would eliminate cost and error for the applicant and the INS--especially now, when applications for citizenship have soared.

"This is going to help the INS tremendously because we're not going to have to reject applicants for missing information," said Jane Arellano, INS assistant district director for adjudications in Los Angeles. "This event was massive, but it was very organized and well handled."

The association usually holds workshops for 100 to 300 people, but given the success of this event, such large-scale endeavors might become more frequent.

However, Vargas emphasizes that the importance of Citizenship Day '95 goes beyond sheer numbers.

"I think it's important for the L.A. community to know that there is this kind of commitment and I think it's in L.A.'s best interest for these people to become citizens," Vargas said. "They're going to be much more involved in working for all communities. And that's where we all benefit, when people know they have something at stake. And by swearing allegiance to this country it's a big step toward doing that."

According to Vargas, those who completed their applications this weekend have approximately a one-year wait before actually becoming citizens.

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Applicants must still pass an interview with an INS officer prior to being called to a swearing-in ceremony, but Vargas hopes most cases will go through before the next presidential election.

"I'll probably vote for Clinton or for Powell," said Aida Manzo, 18, whose desire for citizenship began now that she's old enough to vote.

However, others like Eliza Gomez won't be as lucky. Although she's been a legal resident for six years, the 63-year-old can't speak English, a requirement for citizenship. And she believes it's too late to start. "At this age, you just can't learn," she said with resignation.

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