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Legal immigrants seek American citizenship in surging numbers

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Thirty years ago Andrea Sbardellati left Argentina for a 15-day US visit and never returned home. Now the head of her own Los Angeles-based company, she has three children and wants to become more politically active in her adopted country.

"The same kind of political abuse that used to go on in Argentina I am now seeing in the US," says Ms. Sbardellati, sitting in an office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, where she is filling out an application to become a US citizen. "I'm applying to become a citizen because I want to vote, to make a difference, to have a voice in democracy."

Just down the hall from where Sbardellati is filling out the requisite paperwork, a room of telephone operators logs inquiries from thousands like her. More than anytime in 10 years, say NALEO officials, the calls and applications are flooding in.

Helped by the push of a coalition of 200 organizations here in southern California – including twice-daily pleas from the leading Latino TV station and full-page ads in La Opinion, the leading Spanish-language newspaper – a 150 percent increase in applications has been tallied: 7,334 in January 2006 compared to 18,024 in January 2007. Nationwide, the increase is 79 percent, from 53,390 to 95,622, according to US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS).

"The battle cry is 'Ya Es Hora. Ciudadania!' (It's time. Citizenship!)," says Marcelo Gaete, senior programs director for NALEO, which helps applicants with the process. "The response has been so strong that at times we have a hard time keeping up."

The increase here – expected to be even sharper in March and April – is fueled by three factors, observers say. First is an increased desire by America's 8 million permanent legal residents to vote – the key benefit of citizenship – spurred by a year of debate over immigration policy and massive demonstrations in large US cities.

Second is a proposed fee increase to apply for citizenship effective June 1 – from $400 to $675. Third is revisions in the civics test applicants must pass to become citizens, now being tested in several cities and rolled out in 2008.

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