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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.