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Citizenship Help Program Draws Overflow Crowd

Service: Volunteers assist immigrants in naturalization process at Santa Ana College. But numbers are overwhelming.


SANTA ANA — At the end of the line stood Victor Cabrera, hungry for the chance to take his initial steps toward becoming a citizen but fuming at receiving word he and scores of others could not because of an overflow crowd.

"I feel like my wings are being clipped," said Cabrera on Saturday, as he was turned away four hours before the announced completion of Santa Ana College's Family Citizenship Day, at which legal residents could apply for U.S. citizenship. "I took three buses from Costa Mesa to get here."

Way, way ahead in a queue that snaked around the campus, through the student union and back outside to a table of immigration representatives, stood Angelina Lopez, just plain hungry after finally completing the application and turning it in. That was more than six hours after waiting in line and completing the paperwork, fingerprinting and taking photos necessary for the application.

"I'm so hungry now I have to eat, but I'm glad I did it," said Lopez, a Michoacan, Mexico native who has lived in Orange County for 20 years. "The laws are changing, you know."

Whether motivated by a perceived crackdown on immigration--and diminishing public benefits for noncitizens--or the fact that everything was free (except the $95 application fee), thousands of people like Cabrera and Lopez descended on Santa Ana College for its Family Citizenship Day.

By nightfall, Immigration and Naturalization Service employees had collected a few more than 1,000 applications, among the largest takes at any similar event in the state, officials said.

More than 500 volunteers helped prospective citizens--only legal residents qualify--with the application to become U.S. citizens.

Up and down the lines, in Spanish, Vietnamese, Russian and Hmong, the talk was of seeking citizenship because of a dramatic hike in the fee--possibly up to $200--expected next year and what many felt was an anti-immigrant fervor developing in the nation.

"People look down on you if you're not a citizen here," said John Nguyen, a construction worker from Westminster who left Vietnam 20 years ago. "I didn't become a citizen before because I felt both Vietnamese and American. It wasn't necessary, but now I feel it is because people talk badly about" noncitizens.

Things did not go as smoothly as planned. For starters, several sponsors had pulled out at the last minute in protest of the college's decision to bar Hermandad Mexicana Nacional from participating in the event. The Latino advocacy group is under state and local investigation for possible voter registration fraud.

Saturday's sponsors included KNBC-TV, Santa Ana's police and parks departments, Sisters of St. Joseph and the Volunteer Center of Greater Orange County.

When the event got underway at 9 a.m., it became quickly apparent that organizers had underestimated the response. They had sent out thousands of fliers to 80 community organizations announcing the one-stop service, which can cost $100 to $300 at private agencies.

Although the event was to run until 4 p.m., people were turned away starting at noon, and those in line were told they may not be able to complete the fingerprinting before workers had to leave.

"Everything was well organized," said Teresa Mercado-Cota, the college's community relations coordinator. "But we probably would have wanted more stations to serve the masses."

For the most part, people took the long waits in stride, just glad to get their applications in, even if a backlog at the INS could mean a two-year delay before their applications are processed.

In a cavernous room in the student union, hundreds of citizen prospects sat poring over the paperwork with volunteers, most bilingual, but some not.

Patti Christensen, an unemployed social worker who decided to help out after seeing a sign in a library asking for volunteers, said some of the application questions made for awkward exchanges, especially since she speaks only English.

"Some people brought their children along to translate. So you're asking these kids, 'Can you ask your mommy if she ever advocated polygamy? Has she been in the Nazi party?' " Christensen said. "They just kind of look at you funny."

Raul Moreno, a Santa Ana machine operator, felt satisfied he had it right. Hours after he arrived he was just moments from turning in his application and processing fee check to the INS.

"This was important for me to wait no matter how long," he said. "You get all the benefits of a citizen, better jobs, more rights. That's what I wanted."

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