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January 1997, Volume 3, Number 1

Naturalization Controversy

Some 1.3 million foreigners applied to become naturalized US citizens in FY96 and 1.1 million became US citizens. The INS estimates that 1.8 million foreigners may apply for naturalization in FY97.

Republicans have charged that the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Citizenship USA program violated US law in order to increase the number of Democratic voters. Vice President Gore launched the INS-administered initiative Citizenship USA in August 1995 to eliminate the backlog of 800,000 immigrants who applied for US citizenship and were waiting to be naturalized.

Republicans uncovered documents that showed that a member of Gore's staff complained on March 28, 1996 that INS headquarters was hindering efforts to produce "a million new voters by election day." One memo discussed ways to "lower the standards for citizenship." The INS eventually granted its district managers in some cities the authority to waive some INS rules and regulations to speed up naturalizations. Citizenship USA used community-based groups to recruit permanent residents for naturalization.

In November, 1996, five Republican congressmen charged that "The Clinton administration, motivated by the belief that a large number of new citizens ... (would benefit) the Clinton-Gore ticket in the upcoming elections, put heavy and continuous pressure on the INS to naturalize as many new citizens as possible." The Justice Department rejected their request to appoint an independent prosecutor to investigate Citizenship USA.

Most industrial democracies are making naturalization easier. In the US, most legal immigrants must be residents for five years before applying, although spouses of US citizens can apply after three years.

In New Zealand and Australia, by contrast, legal immigrants can apply for naturalization after two or three years of residence.

Foreigners wishing to become naturalized US citizens must pay $95 and have lived in the US for at least five years (or three, if they are married to a US citizen), be of good moral character (no felony convictions), be of sound mind and speak and understand English (unless they are elderly or disabled). A fee of $95 is charged. They must pass a 10- to 12-question test on US history and civics based on a list of 100 questions and answers provided by the INS, among them: "What is the White House?" "Where is the White House located?" and "Name one right guaranteed by the First Amendment."

The INS is revising the test and welcomes suggestions: Citizenship USA, 425 I St. NW, Washington, DC 20536. The test is available at:

Celia Dugger, "Number Becoming Citizens Drops Sharply in New York," New York Times, December 14, 1996. William Branigin, "GOP Intensifies Action On Citizenship Inquiry," Washington Post, October 25, 1996.