More Apply To Be Citizens

More apply to be citizens

Increase fueled by anti-immigrant trends, fee boost, test changes

12:26 AM CDT on Monday, March 19, 2007
By DIANNE SOLS / The Dallas Morning News

Legal immigrants in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, in Texas and across the country are applying for U.S. citizenship in record numbers driven by the growing anti-immigrant sentiment across the country, legislative proposals that crack down on legal and illegal immigrants, and a proposed jump in fees.


The general requirements for becoming a naturalized citizen of the U.S. include:

An ability to read, write and speak English. Exceptions include persons who have resided in the U.S. for 15 years or more and are 55 or older, or who have resided in the U.S. for at least 20 years and are at least 50 years old.

Good moral character.

Lawful admission into the U.S. for permanent residence.

Continuous presence as a lawful permanent resident in the U.S. for at least five years before filing with no single absence from the U.S. of more than one year.

Renouncement of any foreign allegiance or foreign title.

Locally, citizenship applications surged 78 percent this January over the previous year 86 percent in Texas and 79 percent nationally for the same time period, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Mara Hernandez said she was inspired by U.S. politics to attend a Dallas citizenship workshop. She wants to show she has clout.

“I want to be part of this country, and I want to vote,” said Ms. Hernandez, a homemaker concerned about the current leadership. “I want more changes for Latinos, and I want politicians to know we count.”

In the Texas Legislature, lawmakers have filed more than two dozen bills aimed at legal and illegal immigrants. The trend is playing out across the country as cities and states grapple with the fallout created by a broken federal system.

So workshops like the ones in Dallas are increasing and reporting rising attendance.

At Casa Guanajuato, a Dallas community center started by migrants from the Mexican state by the same name, the workshop has been a Wednesday night feature for more than 10 years.

But this year, it's gained popularity, said Juan Hernandez, a retired grocer and volunteer who teaches the Wednesday night class.

Eugenia Salas attends the same class in hopes of saving a little money. As a restaurant worker, her paycheck has no give, and fees for citizenship applications are about to jump, from $400 to $675.

“Costs are going up,” said Mr. Hernandez, as he prepared mock citizenship questions in a classroom filled with old tables and worn green-leather chairs.

Ms. Hernandez and Ms. Salas, both legal immigrants from Mexico, have been constant fixtures at the Casa Guanajuato workshop.

Hosts of other workshops range from Catholic Charities to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials to state representatives, eager to harvest new voters.

A workshop in Farmers Branch drew 1,000 participants last month, and another in Fort Worth this month drew 300. And the American Immigration Lawyers Association will kick off a wave of “citizenship days” around the nation Saturday at the Richardson Public Library.

Maria Elena Garca Upson, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, said she expects the surge in applications to continue.

Large eligibility pool

About 8 million permanent legal residents are eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship. Last year, 702,000 became naturalized citizens. Mexicans made up last year's largest group of new U.S. citizens, federal statistics show.


Texas lawmakers have introduced more than two dozen bills targeting immigrants and their children. Some of the key bills include those that would:

Restrict state benefits for individuals whose parents are illegal immigrants. Authors include Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler.

Prohibit construction or operation by a local government entity of a day labor center used to facilitate the employment of aliens not lawfully in the U.S. Author is Rep. Bill Zedler, R-Arlington.

Impose a fee for money transfers sent to a destination outside the U.S. Proceeds would be used for indigent health care. Author is Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas.

The spokeswoman for the agency's Dallas regional office said the naturalization test also is a factor in the increase. It is being redesigned, and many people want to take the test using the old exam, she said.

“Having worked for the agency for over 23 years, what will drive this surge is the fee change and the naturalization test redesign,” she said. “People seem to think it is going to be harder, and it is not.”

Rosalind Gold, senior director at the national elected officials group, said the surge in applications shows that people are tuning in to the debate on immigration and responding to the proposed fee increases.

Such a surge was last seen, Ms. Gold said, when California passed Proposition 187 in 1994. A federal court later overturned major portions of the bill, including a provision to deny illegal immigrants access to social services and health care.

“We saw in California in the wake of Proposition 187 a very dramatic increase in people applying for citizenship, and we could be seeing that in Texas and other parts of the country now, as well,” Ms. Gold said.

Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group favoring immigration restriction, views the rise in citizenship applications as a generally positive move.

But he added: “You would hope that people would become citizens of this country because they identify so strongly with it and not out of some defensive reason.”

And Gordon Baum, a lawyer who heads the Council of Conservative Citizens, a St. Louis-based group that wants to restrict immigration, sees the rise in applications as people using “legal and fair avenues” to obtain U.S. citizenship.

But Mr. Baum said his group, which includes Texas members, worries about the changing demographics of the country and the fact that new citizens from the Third World can petition for more relatives to come to the U.S.

“Do you want the U.S. as it is right now, sort of like a European country?” Mr. Baum asked. “Or do you want to make it like a Third World country?”

Legislative proposals

In the Texas Legislature, anti-immigrant proposals include: taxing money wired to Latin America; denying U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants access to state benefits and programs; and prohibiting cities from building or operating day labor facilities used by both legal and illegal immigrants and some U.S. citizens.

“My mail is running 50-to-1 in support of what I am trying to do, and many letters come from Hispanics,” said Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, author of two such proposals.

He wants to tax the stream of money sent to Latin America and deny state benefits to children born in the U.S. of illegal immigrants, in essence, challenging birthright citizenship.

Mr. Berman said he wants a court showdown. The original crafters of the 14th Amendment wanted its application “to ensure that the children of former slaves were indeed U.S. citizens,” he said.

Rep. Rafael Ancha, D-Dallas, takes exception to the onslaught of anti-immigrant bills making their way through the Legislature. Mr. Ancha proposed a bill earlier this year to punish certain businesses that hire illegal immigrants.

But he withdrew that in mid-February, saying he'd rather have their help in fighting bills he said are “punitive” toward immigrants.

Mr. Ancha and other members of the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus joined the Texas Association of Business and several civil rights groups to form a coalition they said is committed to moving all immigration-related legislation out of the statehouse and up to Washington, including Mr. Ancha's bill.

Nearly half of the residents of his district are noncitizens, Mr. Ancha said.

Though he believes the recent surge in applications is due to the proposed fee hike, he said legal permanent residents “are starting to become aware of those bills.”

While legal immigrants may be effusive about citizenship, the jump in new voters may not be seen for a while in Dallas County.

It takes about six months for U.S. citizenship applications to be approved or denied. And, if a new citizen applies immediately to become a voter, it takes 30 days to process that application, said Bruce Sherbet, Dallas County elections chief. So the presidential election next year may be the first time that new citizens will have their voice heard.

Ms. Salas, the restaurant worker who calls the United States her “second homeland,” is scheduled to take her citizenship test in April, about 27 years after arriving in the U.S.