LOS ANGELES -- Looking for a powerful, and old-fashioned, way to assert their rights, immigrants throughout the country are signing up for citizenship in near-record numbers.
More than 425,000 immigrants nationwide are expected to become citizens this fiscal year, rivaling a 50-year-old record set during a period of wartime anxiety.
The surge in citizenship sign-ups is a reflection of the peak immigration levels of the past decade, a period that has seen more newcomers -- both legal and illegal -- arrive on U.S. soil than during any other stretch in history.
But now propelling citizenship interest, say observers and immigrants, is a distinctly political factor: fear of fallout from what many call an anti-immigrant backlash, particularly in California. With Gov. Pete Wilson attacking illegal immigrants and legislators seeking cuts in aid for lawful immigrants, many have hastened to sign up for citizenship -- and the opportunity to vote.
"We are being attacked as government dependents, but most of us are hard-working," said Alfonso Gutierrez, a Mexican-born factory foreman who is applying for citizenship.
"For me, the most important thing is the vote, the opportunity to have a say in this country."
Immigrant advocates have launched aggressive citizenship sign-up drives -- at churches, on television and radio, house to house and in the streets.
Meantime, courses in the English language and U.S. history/civics are booming, reflecting immigrants' desire to satisfy the legal requirements for naturalization.
Citizenship registration is expected to swell during the next year or so as eligibility kicks in for most of the more than 3 million one-time illegal immigrants -- more than one in four of them residents of greater Los Angeles -- who gained amnesty beginning in 1987. Some fear the ever-lengthening queue at U.S. immigration offices will overwhelm an already slow-moving process, extending delays.
The Clinton administration is seeking an additional $30 million to expand the citizenship processing staff and to streamline and further automate what is often an intimidating and burdensome process for applicants. The House reduced the amount to $7.5 million, and the proposal is pending in the Senate.
Declaring that U.S. officials have historically been "too passive" in promoting citizenship, Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioner Doris Meissner has pledged to foster citizenship as an instrument of national harmony during an era of growing anti-immigrant sentiment.
"The naturalization process is a continuing reaffirmation that newcomers want to join up, that they do, by and large, share the values that those of us who came before share," said Ms. Meissner, herself the daughter of naturalized German-born parents. "I think that does help to ameliorate some of the tensions around immigration."
While Latino leaders and immigrant advocates have praised the commissioner's championing of citizen sign-ups, lawmakers and others pushing for limits on new immigrants are wary. Some oppose the stepped-up naturalization efforts because citizens can more easily bring in relatives from abroad.
"Citizenship should not be a priority for INS during a time when we are being smothered by an avalanche of illegal immigration," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican.
The boom in citizenship enrollments has buoyed activists' hopes for a united front against the perceived immigrant bashing. But it would be a mistake to take the new citizens' views for granted. Polls have shown many Latinos to be as disturbed about illegal immigration as non-Latinos. A Republican Party-run voter registration booth did a brisk business after the mass swearing-in at the Convention Center last month.
Decidedly nonpolitical factors -- cost, convenience, job opportunities and other personal motivations -- also are impelling many immigrants to become citizens. (Immigrants are eligible for citizenship after five years of legal residence or three years if married to U.S. nationals.) Along with the right to vote, citizens are entitled to serve on juries and hold jobs restricted to citizens only, including many government and law enforcement positions.
Notwithstanding the advantages of citizenship, recent waves of immigrants -- particularly those from Mexico -- have generally eschewed the privilege. Only slightly more than one-third of legal immigrants apply for citizenship today, considerably lower than the rate earlier in the century, officials say. Yet peak immigration levels are pushing raw citizenship numbers ever higher.
Sign-up rates vary dramatically depending on nationality. Asians traditionally have high naturalization rates -- another important reason why sign-ups have swollen in recent years as Asian immigration and refugee flows have increased. Some 60 percent of Filipinos and 58 percent of Chinese, for instance, apply for citizenship, according to a government study of immigrants who arrived in 1977.
By contrast, only 16 percent of eligible immigrants from Mexico seek U.S. citizenship, the study found.
Traditionally, officials have explained that Mexican citizens are wary of renouncing their homeland, often clinging to an illusion of going back, even after their lives take root and children are born in the United States.
But others see the low sign-up rates as a product of a confusing, costly and often-intimidating citizenship application process.
Applicants must pay a $90 fee and fill out a four-page form, which asks a bewildering array of personal questions in English. Aspiring citizens are queried as to whether they've been Nazis, Communists, narcotics traffickers, prostitutes, gamblers, drunkards, tax cheats, deserters or polygamists.
During a subsequent interview, applicants must demonstrate an ability to speak and understand English -- some long-time residents older than 50 are exempted from this requirement -- and pass a history/civics test that includes questions such as, "Who is your congressman?" "Who wrote 'The Star-Spangled Banner?' "
Experts have long theorized that amnesty recipients will be more likely to seek citizenship than other immigrants.