WASHINGTON – Efforts by Congress and local governments to crack down on illegal immigration — and the protests that followed those efforts — have produced a surge of interest in learning how to become a U.S. citizen.
More of the nation's 8 million legal immigrants are showing up at citizenship classes and seminars sponsored by churches and community groups.
"I didn't think it was important before, but now I think it's very important to be a citizen," Leonida Santana said during a break in a Saturday morning class discussion about the separation of powers among Congress, the president and the courts.
Santana, a Dominican Republic native, arrived in the United States in 1983 and a year later secured a green card, signifying permanent legal residency. She signed up for the 10 weeks of citizenship preparation classes after the House last year passed a bill that would deport illegal immigrants as felons and erect 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
"We are not criminals," she said, explaining that she decided to apply for citizenship because she now wants to vote.
Santana, 46, doesn't align herself with either party, but for now, "the Democrats are the ones that think more about immigrants" and would get her vote, she said.
In December, the Central American Resource Center, known as CARECEN, where Santana is taking her classes, had 27 students. Twice as many were enrolled in the latest class, which began in February, said America Calderon, a program manager for the immigrant services group.
Those inquiring about classes have mentioned the congressional debate on immigration as well as local regulations like one passed last year in Manassas, Va. — since repealed — that restricted the number of residents living in a home, Caledron said.
Alfonso Aguilar, director of the Homeland Security Department's Office of Citizenship, said current events — most recently the 2001 terrorist attacks — have triggered naturalization surges in the past.
Legal permanent residents have the right to live and work in the United States and are protected by state and federal laws. They are eligible for some federal benefits. But they still can be deported if they commit certain crimes and cannot vote in federal and most state and local elections.
A legal permanent resident who has lived in the country at least five years is eligible to take required English, civics and history exams to become an American. If the resident is married to a U.S. citizen, the wait is three years.
Applications for naturalization have increased since December, when the House bill was approved. The Homeland Security Department received 53,390 applications for naturalization in January, 23 percent more than the same month a year earlier. In February, that number rose to 57,056. The agency didn't have final numbers for March.
The department's Citizenship and Immigration Services office also saw a record number of visits to its Web site in March and is experiencing heavy downloads of immigration forms, including 162,000 naturalization forms, said spokesman Christopher Bentley.
The agency can't say conclusively the border security debate in Congress and demonstrations by immigrants have triggered the increased Web site traffic, but "that is the biggest current event that we see right now," Bentley said.
Groups that offer citizenship classes say they are bracing for more enrollees as Congress, awakened by massive immigrant demonstrations in the last two months, tries again to come up with an immigration bill that can pass both the House and Senate.
The Dallas immigration services office of Catholic Charities has been flooded with calls from people interested in citizenship, said Vanna Slaughter, division director. The office's next course begins April 29 and "the people have swarmed to fill that one," Slaughter said.
"When we ask them, they say: 'We want to vote. We want to participate,"' Slaughter said.
More than two-thirds of legal residents queried in a poll in March supported providing temporary work permits for illegal immigrants and a way for them to apply for legal residency after learning English and paying a fine, as was proposed in a Senate measure that faltered earlier this month.
Nemecio Cotoc, 32, who fled a civil war in Guatemala and eventually became a legal resident, said he will never forget that he was once undocumented.
"We can't elect a Hispanic president, but if we can become citizens we can defeat those who have a mind-set against us," Cotoc said. "Really, what we want to do and look for is to work and maintain a good life and grow and pay our taxes on all we buy, like a house, food and other things."