The Rush Is On For Citizenship

The rush is on for citizenship

Election, new rules boost Phoenix filings

Daniel Gonzlez
The Arizona Republic
Sept. 13, 2007 12:00 AM

The number of legal immigrants applying for citizenship in Phoenix soared this year, creating thousands of potential new voters who could affect state and federal elections in 2008.

Nearly 16,000 legal immigrants applied for citizenship from Oct. 1, 2006, to July 31. That is twice as many as the nearly 8,000 who applied during the same period the year before, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Citizenship approvals also are expected to increase. They rose during the past fiscal year, to 7,319 from 5,607. The trend is projected to continue. About 94 percent of all applications are approved.

Immigration officials say there are several reasons for the increase in applications, including a hike in the application fee that took effect July 30, a new citizenship test on the horizon and the presidential election, which historically coincides with more naturalization requests.

Immigrant advocates, however, are taking credit, saying the rise in applications is a sign that efforts to boost Latino voting power are working.

“It's a spectacular increase,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, a Latino activist and former state lawmaker. “This is the result of a concerted, organized effort. These things don't happen by accident.”

Getting the word out

Gutierrez is a member of a coalition of immigrant groups that held citizenship fairs for more than a year, sometimes every other week. The fairs are part of a national campaign called “The Time is Now, Citizenship” aimed at encouraging eligible legal immigrants to apply for citizenship in hopes of increasing Latino strength at the polls.

Only citizens can vote. Legal U.S. residents, who have visas known as green cards to live permanently in this country, do not have that right.

The campaign was launched as an extension of the pro-immigrant marches that took place in Phoenix and cities around the country in the spring of 2006 to press Congress to pass immigration reform. The failed legislation included a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 11 million to 12 million undocumented immigrants, 500,000 of whom live in Arizona. A Senate bill that included a legalization plan in addition to tougher border security and interior enforcement failed in June.

Latinos make up 14.5 percent of the U.S. population. But their strength at the ballot box has not kept pace with their population growth, partly because citizenship rates for eligible Latino immigrants tend to be far lower than immigrants from other countries. In Arizona, only 16 percent of adult Hispanic immigrants have naturalized, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington, D.C.

Latinos also have lower voter registration and turnout.

Latinos make up about 30 percent of the population in Maricopa County. Only about 12 percent of registered voters in the county have Hispanic surnames, and they accounted for only 8 percent of votes cast in the 2006 general election, according to the county's Elections Office.

During the summer, the coalition used the impending fee increase to persuade more eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship. The fee increased nearly 70 percent.

The campaign was heavily promoted on Univision, the largest Spanish-language radio and TV network in the U.S.

“We would go on the radio daily and say (the fee) is going up,” Gutierrez said.

The campaign spurred 2,500 people to apply for citizenship at six workshops held in May and June, said Martin Manteca, a Phoenix labor-union organizer formerly with the Service Employees International Union, part of the coalition.

Sharon Rummery, a CIS spokeswoman, said there was a big jump in citizenship applications ahead of the rise in fees, which increased to $675 from $400, including fingerprinting.

Immigration service data show that in June, the month before the fee increase took effect, 4,430 people applied for naturalization in Phoenix, a 356 percent increase from the 972 immigrants who applied during the same month last year.

A new citizenship test also is prompting an increase in applications, Rummery said. The more-rigorous test will be introduced this month in some cities and is due to take effect nationwide in a year.

Applications also tend to rise leading up to presidential election years, especially in years such as 2008 when term limits guarantee there will be a new president, she said. For example, the number of immigrants naturalized rose 82 percent from 1998 to 1999, the year before the 2000 presidential election.

The right to vote

Many legal immigrants who were reluctant to apply for citizenship in the past were prompted by the campaign.

“I've learned that once you become a citizen you have a political voice,” said Phoenix resident Miguel Calvillo, 29, a legal permanent resident since 1996. Calvillo attended a citizenship fair in May, where volunteers helped him complete the paperwork.

Calvillo, who moved from Sinaloa, Mexico, became eligible to apply for citizenship six years ago but didn't think it was important until Congress failed to pass immigration reform this summer.

“I have a lot of friends and family members who don't have legal status. They have been living here a long time, and they have made their life here,” said Calvillo, who works in the promotions department at Radio Campesina. “By electing the right people, it could make a difference.”

Glendale resident Raul Araiza, 50, a legal permanent resident for 20 years, also decided it was time to apply for citizenship after immigration reform died in Congress.

“I want to have the right to vote to help the Hispanic community,” the landscape worker said.

Not everyone, however, was motivated by political reasons.

Silvia Trinidad, 20, a legal permanent resident since 1993, said she decided to take advantage of one of the fairs because she wants to become a sheriff's deputy. The job is open only to citizens. As a legal permanent resident, she can work only as a detention officer, her current job.

“You have more opportunities when you become a citizen,” she said.


Reach the reporter at daniel .gonzalez@arizonarepublic .com or (602) 444-8312.