STEVE INSKEEP, host:

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Today, the price of applying to become an American citizen goes up, and it goes up dramatically. So for the past week, legal immigrants have been rushing to submit applications for citizenship. They want to beat the price hike. There are other reasons, though, for the recent surge in naturalizations, including a fierce debate in Congress over overhauling immigration laws. And while the numbers are up, half a million people have filed forms to become citizens through May, there's a drive on to push these numbers even higher.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The federal immigration agency counts eight million legal residents eligible to become citizens. Last year, the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO, found two main reasons people hadn't taken that final step: lack of information and fear of the process.

So starting in January, NALEO has worked with Spanish-language media to help Hispanics overcome those obstacles.

(Soundbite of TV commercial)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: In this promo on the national TV network Univision, an anchor says American citizenship is the key to a more secure future. You'll be able to get better jobs, she says, reunite your family and have more rights.

During news programs, Univision anchors toss out questions on the citizenship test, with the answer right after this commercial break. And reporters showcase classes to help people prepare for the test.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Woman #3: (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: There are also newspaper ads and workshops across the country. Marcelo Gaete of NALEO likens the campaign to a new civil rights movement. He says next year, it will morph into a campaign to get immigrants to register to vote and then become a voter turnout drive.

Mr. MARCELO GAETE (Program Director, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials): I mean, I think the country for several years has been talking about immigrants. This campaign will make sure that immigrants are talking back to the country in an integral part of that conversation.

LUDDEN: The idea is resonating.

(Soundbite of clanking sound)

LUDDEN: Mauro Ambriz works at the meat counter of this Hispanic supermarket in Woodbridge, Virginia. He moved here from Mexico 35 years ago and gained legal status in a 1986 amnesty. But only now has Ambriz and his entire family decided to become U.S. citizens. Yes, Ambriz says he very much wants to vote, but he also cites a fear factor: Local politicians in Virginia have joined a national trend in seeking ways to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Mr. MAURO AMBRIZ (Resident, Woodbridge, Virginia): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: Who knows what they'll do next? Ambriz says. Today, I may have my residency card, but maybe tomorrow it will mean nothing. They'll just say everyone out.

LUDDEN: His colleague, Ephraim Rojas, has also applied for citizenship. Rojas says even for legal residents, life is more difficult now with some state and local police helping enforce immigration laws.

Mr. EPHRAIM ROJAS (Mexican Immigrant): (Spanish spoken)

LUDDEN: I've heard of people who have a few problems with the police, he says, and then they lose everything - their residency card, their house, their family.

Pollster Sergio Bendixen sees a repeat of the mid-90s, when California voters approved Prop 187 to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants. Today, he says, in the wake of a Senate immigration debate that included some ugly rhetoric, the turmoil that once played out in California has gone national.

Mr. SERGIO BENDIXEN (Pollster, Bendixen and Associates): There's a feeling has been created that maybe Hispanics are not welcome in this country, and that the Hispanic culture is hurting the fiber of American society. And, of course, that has offended and insulted many Hispanics.

LUDDEN: Bendixen says in the '90s, a surge of new Latino voters in California punished the Republicans who'd sponsored Prop 187. He says this current wave could have a similar impact.

Mr. BENDIXEN: Hispanics are concentrated in many of the so-called swing states - Florida, in Arizona, in Nevada and Colorado.

LUDDEN: And more of them will be able to vote come next November's election.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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