IT'S HARD TO FIND MUCH to cheer in the demise of the Senate's immigration reform bill, which fell apart when two-thirds of Republicans and one-third of Democrats refused to bring it to a vote. But there is one thin silver lining. Dismayed that the federal government has turned its back on millions of working immigrants, record numbers of legal residents -- many mobilized by Spanish-language media -- have been applying to become American citizens, claiming their rightful place in this country.
According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, applications for citizenship from January through April were up 103% in the seven-county Los Angeles region -- and 61% nationwide -- over the same period in 2006. Some applicants have rushed to beat the increase in naturalization fees, from $400 to $675, set for July 30. Others have hurried to avoid having to take the new citizenship test, which will debut next year and is expected to be more difficult.
But at least as many are becoming citizens because they want to take charge of their futures in the United States -- to make a difference. "Everyone was disappointed" by the failure of the immigration bill, says Eduardo "Piolin" Sotelo, the nationally syndicated disc jockey (and L.A. radio ratings leader) who rallied thousands of May Day marchers in 2006 and has worked all this year for immigration reform.
Increasingly, celebrities such as Piolin have carved out a crucial role as pop-culture civics teachers. Between comedic skits, Piolin urges listeners to learn English, abide by the law and get involved in the broader community. Last month, he traveled to Washington to deliver a million letters from legal residents and U.S. citizens asking Congress to create a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Now, backed by corporate parent Univision, Piolin is encouraging legal residents to apply for citizenship. He makes regular visits to naturalization education centers, and he runs an on-air contest that lets listeners try their hand at questions from the citizenship exam. Mexican born, he's also applying to become an American himself. "There are so many people, including me, who've believed having a resident card was enough. But it's not. If you love this country, you have to become a citizen and vote," he says.
A voter registration push will follow this fall. No one knows if it will be as successful in getting Latinos engaged as the citizenship campaign seems to have been. But if it persuades even a few more new Americans to get involved in civic life, all the wrangling over immigration reform won't have been for nothing.