Thousands Seek U.S. Citizenship to Soothe Fears : Schools: Foreign-born residents, feeling threatened by anti-immigrant sentiment, are studying to become Americans. A record 5,200 students have enrolled in L.A. district.


Leonel Martinez wants to become a U.S. citizen, but he's doing it out of fear.

Martinez, who came from El Salvador and got his green card in 1974, grew concerned after hearing politicians blame California's economic woes on illegal immigrants and propose restrictions in benefits for non-citizens.

"Before, it was safe to be a (permanent) resident," said the 46-year-old father of six. "But not now, because anything could happen."

Martinez is one of the record 5,200 students who have enrolled this year in U.S. citizenship classes offered by the Los Angeles Unified School District's 27 adult schools.

District officials, political analysts and community activists say anti-immigrant sentiment is helping to propel the staggering increase in attendance at the citizenship classes, which averaged only 300 students annually from 1990 to 1993.

"We didn't anticipate that amount" of enrollment, said Domingo Rodriguez, coordinator of the district's adult citizenship programs.

Other factors are also contributing to the dramatic increase, officials say:

* Increased citizenship awareness efforts by community action groups and the media began earlier this year. The district itself began a campaign in January that advertised not only citizenship classes, but also additional services such as fingerprinting and photo IDs.

* A new $70 fee was imposed to renew green cards every 10 years. It only costs $90 to apply for citizenship.

* Recent eligibility for U.S. naturalization among those who became legal residents through the 1986 Amnesty program.

But school officials and political analysts say the huge increase far exceeds what they were expecting from the amnesty program, which made those immigrants eligible for citizenship as early as last fall.

Of the total district enrollment, for example, 65% are non-amnesty, longtime California residents. And fear over immigrant bashing and a desire to gain a voice in American political affairs appear to be the primary reasons for enrolling in the classes.

"Even though they're legal and they're permanent residents and they can own property, they're still affected. They feel insecure," Rodriguez said. "The rhetoric is against illegals , but they still hear immigrant ."

When most students discuss anti-immigrant sentiment, they usually identify it with Gov. Pete Wilson's remarks about undocumented immigrants, school officials said.

"He's blaming us for everything that's going on here," said Martinez. "I don't understand why he's focusing on us."

Like Martinez, Maria P. Moy is a longtime Los Angeles resident who is attending citizenship classes. Moy came from Mexico in 1969 and got her green card nine years later. But she never considered applying for citizenship until now.

"I do not feel safe," said Moy, a widow with three children. "It's true that laws change day by day. . . . I think if I become a citizen, I'm going to feel safe."

David Ayon, professor of political science at Loyola Marymount University, considers the fear factor part of an overall drive by Mexican Americans and other Latinos to protect their rights.

"Some people are responding to the sense of being under fire," said Ayon, who also teaches Chicano studies. "There's a feeling of vulnerability there."

Citizenship has "always involved empowerment," Ayon said. "I really don't know if there's any increasing sense of love of country in the old-fashioned way."

So "there's a sense of concern on one hand, there's a sense of opportunity on the other," he said.

Some students, however, just want to integrate into American society.

"Even though I'm Hispanic, I do not believe in holding hands with the Spanish people and say I have power," said Maria Monroy, 55, of Los Angeles, a citizenship student who immigrated from Colombia in 1963. "I don't want the Hispanic people to have the power because there will be a division.

"I have had all the advantages," she said. "I don't feel shortchanged."

Nevertheless, Latinos are not the only ethnic minorities who have felt threatened by negative remarks about immigrants or proposed legislation that would affect them.

Asian immigrants are responding in droves, too.

"The Asian immigrants who have come to our workshops have increased because they have learned that elected officials are proposing in Washington to cut off Social Security benefits," said Edmund Anciano, who runs the U.S. Citizenship Project for the Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

Others, including many Korean immigrants, are seeking citizenship primarily because they want to vote.

"A lot of the leaders in their community realize that they were basically voiceless when it came to speaking out about their concerns after the riots," Anciano said.

Martinez is trying to gain that voice by attending a citizenship class at Belmont Community Adult School near Downtown.

"In the future, I'm afraid they'll take away the permit to work and live here--the way that things are going," said Martinez, a truck driver. "I want to have the right to vote . . . and hopefully to be treated equal."

Belmont school offers seven classes for more than 500 students--the highest enrollment among the 27 adult schools, officials said.

Huntington Park-Bell ranks second in district enrollment at just under 500, followed by Roosevelt-Bilingual at 441 and Van Nuys at 347, said Rodriguez, district citizenship coordinator.

To accommodate the high number of students, most schools--like Venice-Hamilton Community Adult School in West Los Angeles--have had to open new citizenship classes and hire additional teachers, he said. Funding in part comes from monies not used for English as a Second Language classes.

But in Belmont's case, the school had to keep more than 100 people on a waiting list while administrators try to find teachers for them, school officials said.

Most classes at Belmont are held on Saturday mornings. Students pay a $5 registration fee and the cost of their books, although other adult schools offer courses for free. They mainly sharpen their English skills in the classroom and study American history and government to prepare for their citizenship tests.

The growth has caused excitement even among some of the teachers.

"Two years ago when I started, I had 72 students and at that time, I didn't have any who wanted to become a citizen," said Alex Alexander, one of the Belmont teachers. "It took a while to even get three or four who had made the decision to actually become a citizen."

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