Citizenship Applications Jump Up This Year
MICHELE NORRIS, host:
The immigration debate is fueling a big surge in the number of legal immigrants who've applied to become naturalized citizens. By gaining citizenship, they gain the right to vote and the ability to have an impact on immigration issues.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN reporting:
Paula Hood usually teaches her citizenship prep classes on Saturdays at Los Angeles's Southwest College, but this year she has two new night classes. This one has about 20 students, most from Mexico, practicing questions that will be on the U.S. Naturalization Exam.
Ms. PAULA HOOD (Southwest College): And how many stripes are there on the flag?
Ms. SUZANNE ESCALANTE (Los Angeles resident): 13.
Ms. HOOD: Okay, and what do they represent?
Ms. ESCALANTE: The 13 states, first colonies.
KAHN: Sitting closest to the teacher, Suzanne Escalante fires off the answers. She's dog-eared several pages in her civic workbook and is working hard to become a citizen after being in the US for more than 20 years.
Ms. ESCALANTE: It's something that I am doing because my daughter feels proud of me. Oh, she says, Mommy's good.
KAHN: Classmate Agustin Seja(ph) says he decided to take the course after the house passed a bill making it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally.
Mr. AGUSTIN SEJA (Los Angeles resident): (Through translator) That's what pushed me to finally become a citizen, so I can vote. My wife is here illegally and I don't want to come home one day and find she's been deported.
KAHN: Some students said they want to become citizens to get better jobs, to be able to vote and hopefully get legal status for their relatives. Chris Bentley of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service says there's been a 15 percent jump in the number of immigrants asking for applications.
Mr. CHRIS BENTLEY (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service): We'll see individuals who apply for naturalization as soon as they're eligible, statutorily, and then we'll also see people who years and years later will apply for naturalization, so it really is an individual decision.
KAHN: Bentley says his agency is prepared to handle the rush and make its goal of cutting wait times to six months. Currently, the process can take up to a year. Political leaders and immigrant rights advocates also hope those wait times drop. They say there are as many as 14 million legal immigrants in the country eligible to become citizens.
Getting them registered to vote soon could have a major impact on the November mid-term elections, says Congresswoman Lucille Roybal-Allard, a Democratic from Los Angeles. She kicked off a summer naturalization drive in LA by urging Latinos to take a greater role in their adopted country.
Representative LUCILLE ROYBAL-ALLARD (Democrat, California): And that is more important today than ever before, as we're seeing a very anti-immigrant, anti-Latino Congress and, in many ways, the country itself.
KAHN: Last weekend, thousands of legal immigrants filed through the main hall of LA's convention center to get help filling out those naturalization applications.
Unidentified Woman #1: (Speaking foreign language)
KAHN: Hundreds of volunteers helped translate the lengthy forms into several different languages. Miguel Morales says he was glad for the help. He's been in the U.S. for 30 years and just now decided to start the citizenship process. Morales says he wants a voice and a vote.
Mr. MIGUEL MORALES (Los Angeles resident): (Through translator) It looks to me like our Congressmen are taking too long to fix the immigration situation here. What are they doing, going out for hamburgers? You need to get up and fix this situation, or we will vote for someone else.
Unidentified Man #1: Next? Next? Next?
KAHN: Thousands passed through free photos booths.
Unidentified Man #1: Uno, dos, tres, smile.
KAHN: Then to get copies made. Applicants could get even buy money orders on the spot to pay for the $400 processing fee. After a final check, volunteers put all of the paperwork in large envelopes, complete with proper postage. Organizers say they were able to send off nearly 2,000 applications by the end of the day.
Unidentified Woman: Then you'll get information about your new rights as a citizen. It's optional if you'd like to go to that, and you're all done for the day.
Unidentified Man #2: Oh, okay.
Unidentified Woman #2: Okay?
Unidentified Man #2: All right.
Unidentified Woman #2: Thank you.
KAHN: Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Los Angeles.
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