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Undercurrent of Urgency in `Day of Citizenship'

Angered by rhetoric in Congress and anxious about the future, immigrants endure long lines in Los Angeles to get the process started.

July 02, 2006|Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writer

Several thousand legal immigrants stood in line for hours Saturday in Los Angeles to take the first step toward becoming citizens of the United States.

Angered by the anti-immigrant rhetoric emanating from a Republican-dominated Congress, they converged on the Los Angeles Convention Center to apply for citizenship.

The Day of Citizenship event, organized by the We Are America Alliance, a national coalition of labor, religious and community groups, was designed to assist legal immigrants in becoming citizens and registering to vote.

An estimated 2,800 immigrants, many of whom have lived in the U.S. legally for years, endured the long lines to start the citizenship process. In workshops held in English, Spanish and Korean languages, volunteers guided them step by step to complete and file formal applications to become American citizens.

By the end of the day, 1,800 people had paid $400 each to apply for citizenship, according to Mary Gutierrez, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, one of the event's sponsors.

Lourdes Flores-Vasquez of La Habra Heights came to California from Mexico in 1976. Although she has a green card and is a legal permanent resident, she hadn't applied for U.S. citizenship until now. "I want to be part of the changes," she said Saturday.

Flores-Vasquez, an auditor for Los Angeles County, said the daughter of her best friend sent her an e-mail from Thailand telling her to show up Saturday.

Luz Raygoza of Chino Hills came to the U.S. from Mexico four years ago. "I want to be part of this country," she said. "I want to be in a position to vote ... and have all the rights that everybody has."

Raygoza was accompanied by her husband, Antonio, and sons, Jose, 4, and Gabriel, 2. They are U.S. citizens, but she is not.

Her husband, a resident of the U.S. for about 20 years, operates his own business that sells Hispanic foods and beverages to restaurants and supermarkets. "This country offers an open hand to everybody to prosper," she said.

Melvin Jackson and his wife, Manuela, came from Rialto in San Bernardino County so she could apply for citizenship.

Manuela said she came to California from Sonora, Mexico, more than 20 years ago. She now wants to become a citizen "to have more freedom."

She said she is afraid that things are going to get worse for immigrants, even if they entered the U.S. legally.

Israel Morales came to California 14 years ago from Guatemala. His wife, Miriam, and 12-year-old daughter, Ashley, are American citizens.

Ashley said her father, a machine operator, wants to become a citizen so he'll have more rights and can "live peacefully."

Hyun Lee, 76, of Rancho Cucamonga was also applying for citizenship. She has been in the U.S. for almost 20 years.

Her son-in-law said Koreans like Lee are very nervous that it may become more difficult to receive benefits, such as Medicare, in the next few years if they are not U.S. citizens.

Saturday's event in Los Angeles was one of a number of citizenship or voter-registration meetings held from coast to coast to launch what organizers call "Democracy Summer."

Angela Sanbrano, executive director of the Central American Resource Center, said the Los Angeles event is part of "a coordinated effort to strengthen the political power of the immigrant community at the ballot box. We are doing this by naturalizing eligible permanent residents, registering people, and mobilizing 1 million new voters for the elections" this fall.

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa joined local members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus -- Reps. Xavier Becerra and Lucille Roybal-Allard of Los Angeles and Linda Sanchez of Lakewood -- at a news conference outside the event.

"At a time in America when some would demonize and criminalize immigrants," Villaraigosa said, "it's important that those legal residents who are here, who are eligible to become citizens, become citizens and get their voices heard."

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