Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Immigrants applying for citizenship in record numbers.

With the debate over immigration reform raging and emotions flaring, one group that has become galvanized into action are those who have been living in the U.S. legally for years as permanent residents but have not until now felt the pressing need to attain full citizenship.

(Longtime residents are) applying in greater numbers to naturalize, or become citizens—an option for people who have had green cards for at least five years. According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, naturalization applications in the first three months of the year increased 19 percent over the same period last year. And in March, visitors to the USCIS Web site downloaded a record 162,000 citizenship applications. Some immigrants may be driven by fear, others by a desire for full political participation and still others by a wish to petition for relatives living abroad.


The number of eligible legal residents who could apply for citizenship is estimated to be as high as 8 million. A number not lost on immigration rights activists who have begun to make a concerted effort to organize political action that transcends marches and demonstrations and can make a more significant impact at the ballot box.

"We want to capitalize on that movement energy and translate it into a real political voice for immigrants," says Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change. So last week the newly formed "We Are America Alliance," comprised of Bhargava's group and scores more, announced an initiative to produce 1 million new citizens and voters by Election Day 2006. As part of a so-called Democracy Summer, citizenship schools nationwide will help immigrants with their paperwork, offer civics classes and promote political participation. To kick it all off, U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Chicago has proposed a National Citizenship Day on July 1, when he hopes to draw as many as 30,000 applicants across the country.

But enrolling new citizens is no easy task. Many eligible permanent residents choose not to apply, whether because of the cost ($400), lack of English skills or plans to head home someday. To help prod them, some pro-immigrant groups are highlighting the safeguards of citizenship. In new ads by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights—which oversaw the workshop Ortega attended—an announcer intones darkly, "Immigrants are being attacked daily. Protect your family. Become a citizen today." ICIRR also notes that application costs will continue to rise and argues that a revamped citizenship test due to be completed next year will be more difficult (a USCIS spokesman denies that). Fear has motivated immigrants in the past: in the wake of a 1994 ballot initiative in California that stripped away benefits for the undocumented, naturalization surged, reaching a peak of 1 million two years later.


If successful, the effort to naturalize perhaps millions of legal residents could have far reaching political ramifications. Some key swing states could experience seismic shifts in voter demographics. Florida in particular is home to a possible 600,000 thousand newly minted citizens. According to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials these new citizens also tend to vote in much higher percentages than native born Americans. "Our mission is to make good on the slogan, 'Today we march, tomorrow we vote'," says Chung-Wha Hong of the New York Immigration Coalition.

If immigrant rights advocates are successful in their organizing efforts, come November a crop of newly naturalized citizens could make their mark on the political landscape, possibly changing the outcome in some very key states, and setting the stage of a total political reevaluation of the entire immigration reform issue.

For more on We Are America Alliance.

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