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The cost of citizenship may go up

Times Staff Writer

Immigrant advocacy groups are decrying an array of proposed federal measures, including application fee increases and online filing requirements, that they fear will sharply reduce the ability of some legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens.

As President Bush signed a controversial bill last week authorizing 700 miles of new fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border, immigrant rights groups charge that the U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is erecting a virtual “second wall” that would disproportionately hurt Mexican immigrants, who tend to be less educated and earn lower incomes than others.

Last week, a coalition of more than 230 religious, labor and immigrant rights groups delivered a letter to citizenship bureau Director Emilio Gonzalez, expressing strong concern about application fee increases that could double to $800, a “digital barrier” of a mandatory online filing system, extensive new paperwork and a revised history and civics test they fear could be more difficult.

“Together they appear to us a clear strategy pursued through administrative fiat to make the dream of American citizenship unattainable for many lower-income, less-educated immigrants,” said the letter, which was initiated by the Chicago-based Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.

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Some activists fear the Bush administration is seeking to tighten access to citizenship to bar potential new Democratic voters. But U.S. immigration officials flatly deny any partisan motives.

They say they are merely aiming to make the system more efficient, financially self-sustaining and better able to ensure that new citizens understand foundational American values and historical events. Some of the initiatives, including the move to automation and a revised test, were recommended in 1997 by the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform under the Clinton administration. The final proposals are expected to be announced in the next few months and take 12 to 18 months to implement.

A ‘priceless gift’

“There is no more priceless gift a person can receive than American citizenship,” said Christopher Bentley, spokesman for the citizenship bureau in Washington. “Our expectation is that people who have the opportunity to become U.S. citizens realize that the cost and sacrifice is worth the investment in their future.”

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Some immigrants would seem to agree. At a recent citizenship workshop in Los Angeles, where volunteers served 2,000 people who lined up for hours to apply for naturalization, machine operator Arturo Reyna said he scrimped and saved for a year to pay the $400 application fee. The native of Mexico, whose wife, Rosa, is a U.S. citizen, said the price was eminently worth the right to vote and to live here with his family.

“There are big groups trying to stop immigration,” said Reyna, 30. “We don’t like these things, but we can’t vote. As a citizen, you can take part in decisions.”

Victor Yebra, a 38-year-old silk screener who illegally crossed the U.S.-Mexico border as a boy to join his bracero father and subsequently won amnesty, said some immigrants might find higher application fees or online filing requirements onerous. But he said they would not dissuade those determined to become citizens.

“A lot of people here won’t want to deal with these things, but I think they’ll find a way to do it,” Yebra said. “It’s all for your own good future.”

Koreans also alarmed

The proposed changes have, however, alarmed many -- and not only in the Latino community. Koreans accounted for about one-fourth of the organizations signing the letter of protest to Gonzalez.

Koreans began naturalizing in greater numbers in the mid-1990s, when the Los Angeles riot and welfare cutbacks aimed at immigrants showed them the importance of civic influence, said Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium in Koreatown. Still, she said, about 300,000 Korean immigrants eligible to become citizens have not yet done so.

“With these measures, the message they’re sending is that they want to delay full civic participation of new citizens,” Lee said.

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According to scholars, the politics of naturalization are nearly as old as citizenship rites themselves.

At the turn of the 20th century, urban political machines trolling for voters in several states pushed through so many fraudulent naturalizations that Congress passed a landmark immigration reform bill in 1906, said Lorraine McDonnell, a UC Santa Barbara political science professor. Among other things, she said, the reform bill required for the first time that applicants be able to speak English.

More recently, the Clinton administration was accused of “importing votes” by relaxing normal immigration procedures in its Citizenship USA campaign to register 1 million mostly Latino new voters before the 1996 elections.

The charges by Republicans and other critics sparked a three-year Justice Department investigation, which ultimately rejected charges of partisan motives but found slipshod management, including lax background checks that allowed 6,000 possible criminals to become citizens.

To become citizens, legal permanent residents must reside in the United States for five years -- or three years if they are married to a U.S. citizen or serve in the military. They must also pass English and civics tests, be of “good moral character” and take an oath of allegiance.

A long-standing worry

Concern about the civics test dates to 1997, when the U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform criticized it for relying on “memorization of discrete facts rather than on substantive understanding of the basic concepts of civic participation.”

Under the Bush administration, activists feared that the tests would become more difficult and the format changed to multiple choice, which some immigrants are unfamiliar with, said Fred Tsao of the Illinois immigration coalition, which has closely tracked the issue.

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Tsao and others said their anxiety mounted after the Senate passed Republican-sponsored legislation this year setting as goals for the revised test understanding of major documents, such as the Federalist Papers and Emancipation Proclamation, and important historical events, such as major court decisions and key figures in U.S. politics, science, business and art.

Those concerns, however, have abated somewhat. Immigration officials began meeting regularly with adult educators and immigrant advocates, and assured them the test’s format and degree of difficulty would not change.

“We want to add meaning to the process, not make it harder, so we have assurances that this exercise empowers [new citizens] to take their rightful place in society,” the citizenship bureau’s Bentley said.

As one example, he said, questions about the American flag’s colors might be jettisoned in favor of those about key rights, such as voting.

Activists are more concerned about proposed fee increases and mandatory online filing. The fees have increased to $400 from $95 since 1998 and are set to possibly double after immigration officials complete a fee survey later this year.

Marcelo Gaete of the Los Angeles-based National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund said that hundreds of immigrants in two recent citizenship workshops could not afford to pay the current fees and would suffer if they were increased.

Fee hikes are ‘inevitable’

But Bentley said the fee hikes were inevitable because the citizenship bureau receives no regular budget appropriation and must be self-sustaining. A special five-year budget appropriation of $440 million that reduced the application backlog from 3.8 million cases in January 2004 to 120,000 as of August is set to run out, requiring new revenue to sustain the progress, he said.

To promote efficiency, Bentley said the agency also aims to eliminate paper filing and transform to an all-electronic system in the next five years. “The infrastructure we have now is broken,” he said. “We have to come into the 21st century.”

Activists, however, say an online filing requirement will shut out many immigrants without access to computers and open the door to abuse from unscrupulous immigration businesses.

By requiring a 19-page form simply to register for an online account, the new system will all but eliminate the ability to offer mass citizenship application workshops, said Laura Burdick deputy director for national programs at the Catholic Legal Immigration Network in Washington.

“This is not a Democratic or Republican issue,” Burdick said. “Citizenship is in everyone’s interest.”

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Proposed changes

The U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services is considering changes in its citizenship application process. The proposals include:

* Significant increases in application fees

* Mandatory online filing

* A revised history and civics test

* A 19-page preregistration form

Source: U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services


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