They signed up for assorted reasons: Some hope for better jobs, others yearn to vote, and many simply seek to formalize allegiance to their adopted homeland.
About 300 of these foreign-born residents, mostly from Mexico and Central America, ventured Saturday into the cafeteria of Thomas Jefferson High School in South-Central Los Angeles to apply for citizenship as part of a regional campaign sponsored by the National Assn. of Latino Elected & Appointed Officials. Spanish-speaking volunteers assisted in the session, which was one in a series.
"I want to be part of this nation," said Yolanda Villa, a 35-year-old native of Mexico who has lived in the United States for two decades and was among those applying. "This is where I make my life."
Saturday's was the first such forum in riot-scarred South-Central, home to many newcomers from Latin America. "The interest here shows that people in South-Central do want to get involved constructively in their neighborhood," said Nicaraguan citizen Indiana Molina, a school community organizer who helped spread word of the citizenship effort and is herself applying.
The goal is to empower largely voiceless immigrants in a city where Latinos represent more than 40% of the population but only about 11% of registered voters.
At forums like this, activists nationwide increasingly are going to the strongholds of recent arrivals and encouraging them to apply for citizenship. They are seeking to gain political clout for the rising immigrant populations, providing an electoral outlet for some of the frustration so evident during last year's civil unrest.
"Citizenship is fundamental to political empowerment," said Harry P. Pachon, director of the Latino political association. He cited census data showing that Los Angeles County is home to more than 2.1 million non-citizens--almost one-quarter of the county population.
Latino immigrants, particularly those from Mexico--by far the largest group--traditionally are among the least likely newcomers to seek citizenship. Daunting sign-up procedures are the main reason for the gap, said applicants, who largely reject the often-repeated theory that nostalgic and nationalistic ties to the old country are the principal barriers.
"You can never reach a person on the telephone at the immigration service," said Maria Lopez, a Mexican native who has two daughters born in the United States.
The application process includes a detailed questionnaire in English, along with English-language and U.S. civics requirements. Lawyers and consultants often charge $300 or more to assist the immigrants, although the application fee is $90.
"Here (at the forum), there are people who help us, who speak Spanish," said Maria Sevilla, a 69-year-old native of El Salvador who arrived almost half a century ago but only now is signing up for citizenship.
Would-be citizens spoke of their well-traveled pasts and aspirations for the future, reciting familiar immigrant themes.
"We left Mexico because we had nothing to eat," said Robert Torres, a truck driver whose wife, Maria Beatriz Torres, is expecting the couple's fourth child--all born in the United States. "We'll always love Mexico, but this is our home, and we want to share in its benefits."
Student volunteers, many immigrants themselves or first-generation U.S. citizens, were positioned at rectangular tables to offer help.
"What better thing could I do than help someone else to have a voice, to vote," said Jose De Leon, a high school sophomore who emigrated from Mexico with his family. "Belonging is a big part of this. You don't want to be somewhere where you don't feel you belong."
A handful of non-Latino immigrants also signed up.
"You get a better job if you're an American citizen," said Urvashi Vadan, dressed in a colorful modified sari, who, along with her husband, Chandra Vadan, runs a motel in Hawthorne. Both are 10-year U.S. residents of Indian descent, but they remain citizens of Fiji.
Despite the upbeat tone of the prospective citizens, the notion of obtaining full U.S. privileges remains illusory for many area residents--the tens of thousands who cannot apply because they lack legal status.
"To be indocumentado (undocumented) is almost like not existing at all," said Teodoro Bautista, happy for fellow Mexicanos but plainly frustrated that he, too, could not share in their good fortune. "We immigrants are too often caught between two countries," said Bautista, a trained economist and college graduate who is a textile worker here. "We must move forward and put down roots."