More Immigrants Than Ever Seeking Citizenship

Since the fee to apply for U.S. citizenship jumped from $400 to $675 in July, interest in tackling the daunting N-400 application for naturalization has cooled somewhat, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But applications keep pouring in from legal permanent residents who seek the full protection and rights of citizenship in light of the bitter debate over immigration that leaves many Latinos feeling targeted regardless of their legal status. In September, the number of pending citizenship applications was close to 900,000 nationwide, an 84 percent increase from 2006. In Colorado, nearly 11,000 people applied for naturalization in the first half of 2007, compared with 8,100 in all of 2006.

Leticia De la Torre, 47, is applying for naturalization with the help of preparation classes offered by Denver’s Latina Initiative, an organization dedicated to increasing civic involvement among Latinas.

“The laws seem to be changing a lot,” she said. “My family is here and this is where I want to be. I don’t want to go back to Mexico, but what if the law changes and they take our residency away?”

The 10-page N-400 application for naturalization is an intimidating document that demands a painful level of detail and often an attorney’s help to complete correctly.

On page 7, you must list the name of every club, foundation, party, society, association or organization that you’ve ever been a part of. The following questions indicate that Communist, terrorist and Nazi sympathizers are not welcome. The morality test begins on page 8 with difficult-to-verify, on-your-honor questions about whether you’ve committed crimes and not been arrested, been a “habitual drunkard,” worked as a prostitute, hired a prostitute, gambled illegally, crossed the border illegally or skipped out on child-support payments.

Ofelia Leal, 55, originally from Chihuahua, Mexico, has been a legal permanent resident since the mid-1980s, when an immigration overhaul granted legal status to 2.7 million undocumented immigrants. She hasn’t been able to apply for naturalization because she doesn’t have all the information the application calls for — including specific dates of travel and various identification numbers for her late ex-husband.

“Honestly, the hardest part of the whole process is filling out this application,” Leal said. “You have to list the day, month and year of all the times you left the country. When I lived in El Paso, I crossed over to see my mother in Ciudad Juarez whenever I felt like it. I used to walk across and return to Texas in the same day — I have no idea how many times.”

Cecilia Martinez, 42, managed to complete the application, but she worries about the citizenship test, which is in the form of an English-language interview with an agent of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. 

“If I say one word wrong, I just freeze and my nerves take over,” said Martinez, who says she is more worried about making grammar mistakes than she is about flubbing the questions on U.S. history and government. After weeks of study and memorization, Martinez says she knows the answers to all 96 of the possible questions the interviewer might ask. She can name the constitutional amendments that guarantee voting rights, the patriot who proclaimed “Give me liberty or give me death,” the enemies of the U.S. during World War II, the requirements to be a U.S. president, and the 13 original states.

Martinez hopes to knock the exam out before the end of the year so she can get a jump-start on her career goals in 2008.

“I’ve always wanted to be a police officer, but you have to be a citizen. I don’t know if I can still do it, but I’m going to try.”