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Residents Become Citizens by the Busload, Now Wield Vote : Immigration: About 120 pledge allegiance at mass ceremony, aided by El Concilio del Condado. Some see a new political force in the making.

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SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The first thing Ventura County’s newest U.S. citizens had to worry about after being sworn in Thursday at a massive ceremony in Los Angeles was which political party to join.

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After the group of about 120 freshly minted citizens received certificates from the federal government confirming that they were naturalized citizens, they received voter registration cards from El Concilio del Condado de Ventura, an Oxnard-based Latino advocacy group.

With roughly 40,000 legal residents in Ventura County who have the potential of becoming citizens, local activists see the group as a burgeoning voting bloc, said Greg Simons, head of El Concilio’s citizenship program.

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“I think there will be some sort of ripple effect from all these new voters,” Simons said. “Maybe not this election, but definitely in the next one.”

El Concilio not only sponsored workshops to prepare the group for citizenship, it hired three buses to deliver the immigrants to the Los Angeles ceremony. Oxnard Mayor Manuel Lopez, Moorpark City Councilman Bernardo Perez and an Oxnard-based Democratic Party organization helped pay for the buses.

Before Thursday’s ceremony, the county’s newest citizens affirmed their desire to one day wield the power of the ballot.

“I want to vote,” said Lula Castor, 52, a legal resident who has lived in Ventura for more than 26 years. Castor’s 78-year-old father-in-law, Antonio, also became a citizen Thursday after living in Ventura for 40 years.

Lula Castor’s 19-year-old son Joaquin Jr., who bought a giant American flag for the event, said his mother couldn’t put off becoming a citizen any longer.

“With all the political things going on, the time was right to do it now,” he said.

Castor and many of the others in the group cited fear as a major motivating factor in their decision to become citizens.

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“Ever since Proposition 187 passed, it has made a lot of people want to become citizens,” said Javier Meza, 38, a construction worker from Moorpark. “I’ve lived in Moorpark 25 years. It is my town. I don’t want to leave it.”

In the last two years, the federal Immigration and Naturalization Service has seen a surge in the number of legal residents applying for citizenship, said INS spokesman Rico Cabrera.

In 1993, the agency was receiving about 350 citizenship applications daily. By early this year, it had jumped to more than 2,500 a day.

To keep up, the agency has processed thousands of applications and held massive swearing-in ceremonies each month, Cabrera said.

On Thursday, the INS swore in more than 9,000 new citizens in two ceremonies. This year the agency hopes to swear in more than 120,000 citizens in Southern California alone.

“What will the political situation be like next? Nobody knows,” said Edith Acre-Anderay, an immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in Moorpark for five years.

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“At least we have a voice as citizens,” she said. “We will be able to choose who will be the next governor, the next President. It’s a big responsibility.”

And one that is not taken lightly.

Dressed in his Sunday best, 72-year-old Epifanio Gutierrez arrived well before dawn Thursday morning at the Metrolink station in Moorpark to wait for the bus that would take him and about 20 others to Los Angeles. Two other buses picked up people in Oxnard.

“I didn’t want to be late,” he said. “This is important.”

In Los Angeles, Gutierrez and the rest of the Ventura County group joined the stream of about 4,000 people pouring into the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Walking through a line that stretched around the inside of the convention center, the citizens in waiting turned in their green cards, took their seats and waited to be sworn in by U. S. District Judge Ronald Lew.

Raising their right hands, they each renounced allegiance to other nations and pledged to defend the Constitution.

“I believe I’ll be a good citizen and contribute to this country,” said Joanna Wu, 42, a kindergarten teacher in Simi Valley. Wu said she has been trying to become a citizen since emigrating from Hong Kong more than 20 years ago.

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“I don’t think people understand what immigrants have to go through to become citizens,” she said. “I don’t think they know how hard it can be.”

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