AP, April 19, 2006
WASHINGTON — Efforts by Congress and local governments to crack down on illegal immigration — and the protests that followed those efforts — have produced a surge of interest in learning how to become a U.S. citizen.
More of the nation’s 8 million legal immigrants are showing up at citizenship classes and seminars sponsored by churches and community groups.
“I didn’t think it was important before, but now I think it’s very important to be a citizen,” Leonida Santana said during a break in a Saturday morning class discussion about the separation of powers among Congress, the president and the courts.
Santana, a Dominican Republic native, arrived in the United States in 1983 and a year later secured a green card, signifying permanent legal residency. She signed up for the 10 weeks of citizenship preparation classes after the House last year passed a bill that would deport illegal immigrants as felons and erect 700 miles of fencing along the U.S.-Mexico border.
In December, the Central American Resource Center, known as CARECEN, where Santana is taking her classes, had 27 students. Twice as many were enrolled in the latest class, which began in February, said America Calderon, a program manager for the immigrant services group.
Those inquiring about classes have mentioned the congressional debate on immigration as well as local regulations like one passed last year in Manassas, Va. — since repealed — that restricted the number of residents living in a home, Caledron said.
The department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services office also saw a record number of visits to its Web site in March and is experiencing heavy downloads of immigration forms, including 162,000 naturalization forms, said spokesman Christopher Bentley.
The agency can’t say conclusively the border security debate in Congress and demonstrations by immigrants have triggered the increased Web site traffic, but “that is the biggest current event that we see right now,” Bentley said.
Only 121 new voters were registered during last week’s historic pro-immigrant march in Phoenix, despite efforts by organizers to translate the massive turnout into stronger Latino electoral clout.
Arizona political stalwart and former state lawmaker Alfredo Gutierrez, an event organizer, said registrars who set up tables at Veterans Memorial Coliseum, where the April 10 march started, were overwhelmed by 9:30 a.m. by the size of the crowd. So, registrars removed the tables for safety reasons.
“They were inundated and surrounded” by people, Gutierrez said, referring to the more than 100,000 marchers who converged on downtown Phoenix in support of legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants in the United States. “We frankly were defeated in this effort by our own success.”