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On National Citizenship Day, immigration debate spurring some Latinos to pursue citizenship

There are 8.8 million legal permanent residents eligible for citizenship, according to government figures.  In the case of Latinos, a Pew Hispanic report found that only 46 percent of Latino immigrants who are eligible to become citizens have taken the step, compared to 71 percent of non-Latino legal immigrants.  Among Mexican-Americans, only 36 percent have naturalized.

On Tuesday – National Citizenship Day – groups and immigration advocates around the country urged Latinos who are eligible to become citizens, and pledged to help make it happen. One of them was Marizza Contreras, who became a citizen after receiving help from the Bethlehem Project, a program that partners businesses and local service providers to provide citizenship-eligible employees with low-cost or free citizenship assistance.

“I came to the United States in 2000. During all this time, I didn’t [apply for] citizenship due to procrastination. I kept putting it off because it was too much money and I couldn’t find the time,” said Contreras at a press conference in Washington, D.C. sponsored by the New Americans Campaign.  “I was in the process of hiring a lawyer when the Betsy Hotel (in Miami, Florida) presented this wonderful opportunity to work with the Bethlehem Project. Thank you to the Betsy Hotel for making this opportunity available to me,” she said.

Yet despite the efforts associated with pursuing citizenship, the immigration debate might be steering some Latinos to reconsider just remaining as legal residents.

In the gargantuan House district represented by Democratic Rep. Pete Gallego of Texas there are large numbers of people who are legal residents of the U.S., but have not applied for citizenship.

Their reasons vary but the immigration debate is spurring many to step out of their in-between status and apply for citizenship, Gallego said Tuesday.

Gallego  planned immigration fairs for Tuesday in San Antonio; Fabens, a city outside El Paso and Del Rio, on the border.

Gallego said he’s held such fairs before in San Antonio and has had lines out the door.

“We have found there are large numbers of people who are here legally and are eligible for citizenship and have not applied,” he said. “Anyone who attends can get either help or information on applying on immigration forms, on visas, on college for DREAMers, on (English as a Second Language) classes.

Gallego said many immigrants, including those who are Latino, are concerned about possible changes in immigration law or are realizing they have a louder voice in shaping government policies when they vote, a privilege of citizenship.

There also will be discussions about the immigration reform debate and the status of legislation. Gallego said there still a possibility for reform, but the odds against it are increasing as each day passes and the congressional session nears its end.

“We’re closing in on the fourth quarter of the year. The fourth quarter of a football game always is toughest. If you are behind  and not closing in, it’s difficult to make it over the goal line,” Gallego said . “There will be significant resentment towards the Republican leadership if the bill doesn’t pass, especially in the Latino community.”

Apart from being able to vote and have more of a say in the country’s legislative matters, there are economic benefits to citizenship, according to recent studies.

Justin Scoggins, co-author of the USC study, Citizen Gain: The Economic Benefits of Naturalization for Immigrants and the Economy, said at the press conference, “Our recent estimates suggest that citizenship alone is associated with an 8 to 11 percent increase in earnings annually, with much of this gain seen within the first few years of naturalizing.”

Max Sevilla, Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for NALEO, stated it was important for groups to assist legal residents to pursue citizenship, saying “these individuals are already making a difference in communities and cities across the country, and this step will enable them to access the rights that will allow them to become full participants in our American democracy.”

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