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October 1996, Volume 3, Number 10

Naturalization Controversy

In FY96, some 1.1 to 1.2 million immigrants are expected to become American citizens, more than doubling FY95's record 445,852 naturalizations. The previous record was 441,979 naturalizations in 1944.

Seventy-five percent of the new US citizens are in or near the cities of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Miami and Houston, and most are expected to vote Democratic in 1996 elections.

There are about eight million immigrants in the US who are eligible to naturalize. The INS projects that another 1.1 million foreigners will naturalize in FY97.

The upsurge in naturalizations prompted some Republicans to charge that the Democratic Clinton administration is cutting corners to get more Democratic voters. Each newly-naturalized citizen receives a packet that includes a voter registration card and a letter from the president.

The presidential letter begins: "Dear Fellow American: I want to congratulate you on reaching the impressive milestone of becoming a citizen of our great nation. As you enjoy the benefits of American citizenship and assume the responsibilities that accompany it, you follow the many brave men and women who have sacrificed to establish and preserve our democracy over the last two centuries."

On September 10, 1996, a US House of Representatives subcommittee held hearings on allegations that some private firms certified to test the English skills of applicants for naturalization were approving applicants who could not speak English.

Republicans unveiled a memo written by Vice President Gore's office that says: "INS warns that if we are too aggressive at removing the roadblocks to [naturalization].... we might be publicly criticized for running a pro-Democratic voter mill."

A Chicago Alderman wrote a letter to Mrs. Clinton urging an accelerated naturalization program to "provide the Democrats with a strategic advantage" in the 1996 elections.

Vice President Gore launched a "Citizenship USA" drive in April 1995, speeding the elimination of the backlog of 600,000 immigrants who had requested naturalization, and promising new applicants naturalization within 90 days.

On September 24, 1996, several Immigration and Naturalization Service employees testified that the INS was naturalizing immigrants who had committed crimes in the US, usually a bar to US citizenship. An INS agent charged that 5,000 of the 60,000 immigrants naturalized during mass ceremonies in Los Angeles in August 1996 had criminal records. Since Citizenship USA began, some 327,000 persons have been naturalized in Los Angeles, including 60,000 on August 7-9 and August 14-16,1996.

INS officials insisted that such statements were misleading, and that no more than 69 of the 5,000 immigrants with criminal records would have been denied naturalization. Many of the crimes were violations of immigration law, which the INS does not consider sufficient reason to disqualify applicants from US citizenship.

INS promised to revoke the US citizenship of anyone naturalized improperly, although the INS admitted on September 25 that because it had not yet decided what procedures to use, it had not yet taken back the citizenship of anyone improperly naturalized in Los Angeles in 1996. The INS denaturalized through federal courts 15 people in FY94, 11 in FY95, and two people in FY96.

On September 26, California's Secretary of State ordered county voter registrars not to permit non-citizens to vote in the November 1996 elections, after it was revealed that 727 non- citizens in Los Angeles county had filled out the voter registration form attached to the driver's license application under the new "motor voter" law.

In applying for the license, they had signed the form on which the signatory asserts, under penalty of perjury, that he/she is a US citizen at least 18 years old and thus eligible to vote.

The INS is drafting regulations for "administrative denaturalizations" that are possible within one year of naturalization. Under the draft regulations, newly naturalized citizens who are accused of concealing criminal records will be given 30 days to respond to the charges.

There are many explanations for the upsurge in naturalizations. One factor often cited is the passage of Prop. 187 in November 1994 in California, followed by the August 1996 welfare law that makes many legal immigrants ineligible for welfare benefits.

A second factor was the INS requirement that many immigrants had to visit INS to replace their old green cards. They were reminded that, for $20 more, the immigrant could become a naturalized US citizen.

A third factor which will remove a deterrent to naturalization is Mexico's pending introduction of dual citizenship--Mexican-born persons are about one-fourth of US immigrants.

The rush of new voters may not change the political dynamics of immigrant districts. The 33rd Congressional District in southeast Los Angeles County, represented by Lucille Roybal-Allard (D-CA), has had the fewest registered voters of any US Congressional District--76 percent of the registered voters in this district are Democratic, and newly-naturalized citizens are registering Democratic at a 2 to 1 rate.

In a September 1, 1996 speech to the United Farm Workers convention, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros asserted that 70 percent of the legal immigrants who would lose benefits under the new welfare law were eligible to become US citizens.

About 300,000, one-fourth of all immigrants naturalizing in FY96, will be given tests in English and history by private firms rather than the INS. One private firm, Naturalization Assistance Services, is accused of "guaranteeing" that the immigrant passes the test in exchange for a $850 fee. The INS closed 25 private centers that provided naturalization services for a fee in 1995, including 17 operated by Naturalization Assistance Services.

Some of the NAS graduates reportedly did not understand the instruction to "please take your seat" at their naturalization ceremony.

On September 17, more than 10,000 immigrants were sworn in as US citizens in Dallas, Texas, the largest-ever naturalization ceremony in Texas. During the ceremony, a plane carrying a banner with the note "Felicidades. Vota Dole-Kemp," flew overhead. Texas is considered a critical state for Republicans in the November election. About half of the immigrants sworn in were Mexican.

Santa Clara county, which includes Silicon Valley, hired a "naturalization czar" to coordinate the activities of community-based organizations and volunteers who are helping some of the 18,000 eligible immigrants to naturalize. County officials believe they are the first in the nation to approve such a program. A naturalization ceremony in San Jose, California was held September 18 for 11,000 immigrants from 104 countries.

If Mexican immigrants naturalize in great numbers, it will mark a change: The INS in 1992 reported that only 17 percent of the Mexicans who entered the US legally in 1977 sought to become naturalized citizens during the next 15 years.

Hector Tobar and Jeffrey Rabin, "Massive Tide of Naturalized Citizens Swells Voter Rolls," Los Angeles Times, September 29, 1996. Jeffrey Rabin, "700 Noncitizen Voters Dropped," Los Angeles Times, September 27, 1996. Sara Fritz, "Immigration agency disputes claim that about 5,000 naturalized in LA ceremonies concealed their records," Los Angeles Times, September 24, 1996. Marshall Wilson, "US Welcomes 11,000 Citizens," San Francisco Chronicle, September 19, 1996. "10,000 new citizens in Texas," Reuters, September 17, 1996. Sam Howe Verhovek, "Immigrants' Anxieties Spur a Surge in Naturalizations," New York Times, September 13, 1996. William Branigin, "House GOP Accuses Democrats of Minting New Voters," Washington Post, September 11, 1996.