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In Tragedy, an Emotional Surge in Citizenship Hopes

Immigration: Fears of INS scrutiny, and a dose of patriotism, motivate applicants.

July 24, 2002|JONATHAN PETERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Requests for U.S. citizenship have soared this year, driven in large part by the emotional and legal ripple effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to immigrants and those who counsel them on adjusting to the United States.

For many longtime residents, the tragic events stirred patriotic feelings, sparking long-delayed decisions to formalize their American identity and take the oath of citizenship. Others, anxious about the Justice Department's more aggressive pursuit of immigration law violators, have sought shelter in legal protections that come only with citizenship.

Just Monday, Atty. Gen. John Ashcroft announced that the Justice Department would expect full compliance with a widely ignored rule that noncitizens report any address changes or risk criminal penalties, including possible deportation.

"I want to have rights in this country," said Anacleto Nieves, 36, a Mexico native who is raising his family in Pico Rivera and recently became a citizen after 17 years in this country. "When you are an American citizen, you have security to stay in this country. It's different when you are only a resident."

Nieves took the oath of citizenship in May. His wife's application is pending.

Nationally, requests for citizenship surged 65% during the eight months after Sept. 11, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, with a leap of more than 100% in Los Angeles. In May, the most recent month for which national figures are available, they jumped 121% from the same month in 2001.

Close observers trace the increase to all kinds of people. "It's not based on ethnicity," said J. Kevin Appleby, director of migration and refugee policy for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's not just Middle Easterners. It's in all the immigrant communities."

Nor is Sept. 11 the only cause. A 2001 law that streamlined the citizenship process for the children of those who take the oath may have encouraged some parents to move forward. Fee hikes for INS fingerprinting and citizenship applications that took effect in February, raising the combined cost from $250 to $310, touched off a mini-stampede the month before.

A flurry of high-profile mayoral races involving Latino candidates in Los Angeles, New York, Houston, San Antonio and other cities may also have inspired some immigrants to seek citizenship--and the right to vote.

"I think a lot of the buzz around those elections and around those candidates may have had an impact on immigrants' decisions," said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy research and advocacy with the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

Not Feeling Welcome

On the street, some of these factors have blended together unpredictably. Antonio Martinez, 60, a factory worker from Cudahy who passed the citizenship exam Tuesday, said he interpreted recent INS fee increases as a sign of less-welcoming attitudes toward immigrants after Sept. 11. (In fact, the INS formally announced its plan on Aug. 8 to hike fees.)

"After the rates went up, I started to see that this country didn't want any more people becoming citizens," he said.

Martinez, who is from Mexico, said he was concerned that he would not be welcome in the United States if he did not become a citizen. But more than that, he said his decision reflected his gratitude for his adopted land.

"We love this country," Martinez said. "This country opened its arms for us. This country gave us jobs. This country gave us schools. This country gave us everything. In my opinion, this is the best country in the world. I want to be part of it. You cannot be part of the country if you're not a citizen."

It is a conclusion that some immigrants reach only gradually. Martinez and others said they were wary of losing money to unscrupulous operators who prey on immigrant communities with promises of helping them gain citizenship.

The citizenship exam itself, which touches on U.S. history, government and English proficiency, can be a source of anxiety. Finally, some are reluctant to abandon dreams of returning to their homeland or demoting it to second place in their national allegiance.

When one immigrant makes the leap, it can motivate relatives or friends to follow suit. "For every new citizen, there's often someone waiting in the wings," said Jeff Chenoweth, division director for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network.

The number who have to wait has increased this year, as the INS has subjected applicants to more stringent criminal background checks. The number of requests approved from October through May (337,590) was down 10% from the year before, when the INS was reducing a big backlog.

'We Weren't Prepared'

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