Times Staff Writers

Citizenship applications are skyrocketing in Southern California and across the nation, as green card holders rush to avoid a proposed fee increase, a revised civics test and possible changes in immigration law.

Applications filed in Los Angeles and six surrounding counties shot to 18,024 in January from 7,334 in the same month last year, a 146% increase, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Nationwide, the number hit 95,622, up from 53,390, a 79% increase.

The jump -- both locally and nationwide -- is the largest in a decade, officials said. The numbers of applications first spiked last March with mass immigrant rights rallies and saw the most dramatic increase after the new year.


The filings are expected to continue as Congress prepares to restart the debate on immigration reform.

“Every time we have this much talk of immigration in the news and on the Hill, we get a lot more interest,” said CIS spokeswoman Marie Sebrechts. “We tend to see a surge in applications.”

After last year’s marches, immigrant rights advocates launched a campaign to produce 1 million new citizens and registered voters. They fell far short of their goal by the November election, but advocates said they were pleased with the number of immigrants applying for naturalization.

“People are really invested in the entire debate,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. She said many immigrants have asked themselves, “How am I going to protect myself in this country if I am not a U.S. citizen?”

There are an estimated 8 million permanent legal residents who are eligible to apply for citizenship. An additional 12 million illegal immigrants are thought to reside in the United States.

This month, community groups and faith-based organizations are gearing up for another citizenship drive before the proposed new fees and exam would take effect.

The new effort is called, “Ya Es Hora. ¡Ciudadania!” (It’s time. Citizenship!) and features media blitzes and workshops to help educate immigrants about the process.

Citizenship application and fingerprint fees would increase from $400 to $675 in June under the CIS proposal, Sebrechts said. And a new test, which would require a better understanding of the nation’s history and democratic principles, is set to take effect next year.

“There is a new urgency in the community,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Folks are saying, ‘I’d better apply now.’ ”

William Ramirez, a legal resident from El Salvador, has been eligible to apply for citizenship since last February. When he heard about the fee increase proposal, he immediately sought help from Hermandad Mexicana, an immigrant rights organization in Los Angeles, to complete his application.

“If I can do it now, why wait?” said Ramirez, 44, of La Puente. “It’s going to save me a lot of money.”

Ramirez said he planned to seek legal residency for his wife and young child, now in the country on tourist visas, and is eager to cast his first ballot. “I can do better for my people,” he said. “I can help with my vote.”

Rancho Cucamonga resident Irene Gonzalez, 32, emigrated with her parents from Mexico when she was 6. After two decades as a green card holder, she filed her application for citizenship last week.

When she was younger, Gonzalez said, she felt as though becoming a U.S. citizen would be a betrayal of her native Mexico. Now, she says, “I want to have that peace of mind that I am a citizen and I have every right to be in this country.”

Who may apply

Green card holders -- legal permanent residents -- can apply for citizenship after living five years in the United States, or three years if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They must pass civics and English tests, be of “good moral character” and take an oath of allegiance.

CIS must raise application fees because it does not have a regular allocation, Sebrechts said. Rather, it relies almost entirely on fees to support itself and is facing a budget shortfall. The agency plans to switch from paper to electronic filing, which she said would make the application process more efficient and secure.

On Saturday, potential citizens throughout Southern California went to schools, community colleges and other locations, including a Mexican restaurant in Lynwood, for help in completing their applications. Kidworks, a Santa Ana faith-based community center, sponsored one of the workshops.

“In light of the climate right now,” said Ava Steaffens, chief executive officer, “it’s necessary to give people the tools to become full-fledged citizens.”

Some local colleges have seen citizenship class attendance more than double in the last six months. For example, at Los Angeles Southwest College, class attendance has jumped from 180 to 400 since the fall, said Marian Ruane, a program coordinator at the school.

Garden Grove resident Mariana Garcia, 34, who marched for immigrant rights in Santa Ana last year, has been eligible to apply for citizenship for more than two decades after emigrating from Mexico.

She said the desire to vote was the main reason she wanted to become a citizen.

“We’ve seen so many people say that immigrants contribute nothing and take too much,” she said. “We need to be voters to make a statement to the contrary.”

Media campaign

Spanish-language media are also playing a part in encouraging citizenship and registering voters. La Opinion, a Los Angeles newspaper, recently published a full-page advertisement explaining how to apply. Univision’s KMEX television station has dedicated significant airtime to promoting citizenship workshops.

Popular radio DJ Eddie “El Piolin” Sotelo began an on-air contest called “Who Wants to be a Citizen?” Listeners from around the country can win trips and cash prizes by answering questions from the citizenship exam: What are the three branches of the U.S. government? Who signs bills into law? What is the Fourth of July?

With disco music playing in the background, Sotelo stood in Univision’s Glendale studios last week and talked with Pedro, a Mexican immigrant in Phoenix. He directed Pedro to choose from four envelopes, each containing a question and a prize, and told him he could call a friend for help.

Pedro chose No. 2, and Sotelo recited the question in Spanish: What is the head executive of a state government called? A. President. B. Governor. C. Mayor.

When Pedro responded, Sotelo teased him. “D? I only gave you three: A, B and C,” Sotelo said.

“B, as in burro,” Pedro repeated loudly.

“Correct!” Sotelo cheered, his arms waving. “Congratulations!”

Then Pedro opened the envelope to see what he had won.

“Three-hundred dollars!” Sotelo cheered. “You won a day’s work!”

Pedro laughed and corrected him: “Two days.”

Influencing the future

Increased citizenship could influence politics nationally and locally if the new citizens register to vote and get to the polls, said Leo Chavez, a political anthropology professor at UC Irvine.

“As more immigrants vote, it will be harder to attack immigrants,” Chavez said. “They will be the constituency.”

Anti-illegal immigration groups, however, say they are not especially concerned about the surge in citizenship applications and what influence it might have on the national debate.

“It’s not clear that the impact is what some immigrant rights advocates think it might be,” said Steven Camarota, director of research for the conservative Center for Immigration Studies in Washington, D.C. “On a policy issue like immigration, there is a lot of diversity of views.... The group does not speak with one voice on this issue.”