A 2-year-old California law aimed at curbing illegal immigration is sparking a rush among Hispanics in Eastern Washington for U.S. citizenship.
California’s Proposition 187 is one of the big reasons Spokane immigration officials are seeing a huge jump in citizen naturalizations.
The number of immigrants getting citizenship papers in Spokane increased from 289 in all of 1994 to more than 800 less than six months into the current federal fiscal year.
Blaine Dahlstrom of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service said Proposition 187, the so-called 1986 “illegal alien” act and his office’s outreach program are generating the bigger numbers.
“At our satellite office in Yakima, the numbers are even higher,” he said.
Dahlstrom said many of those people are part of Eastern Washington’s large migrant farm worker population and spend part of the year in California. They are pursuing citizenship because of concerns about their future if Proposition 187 survives legal battles.
“There’s a fear they may lose out on the benefits of being a citizen,” Dahlstrom said. The California measure would deny public benefits and education to illegal immigrants.
In addition, Dahlstrom said 38,000 people in Washington state took advantage of the 1986 illegal alien amnesty law and are now completing five years of residency.
“A lot of these people went through amnesty,” he said. “They’re all coming due right now.”
That group is being reached through community college programs from Moses Lake to Spokane and from Walla Walla to Yakima.
“Hispanics are having the largest impact on our area,” Dahlstrom said.
That was evident Wednesday afternoon in Spokane’s Federal Building, where 31 people were naturalized in one of the every-other-Wednesday ceremonies.
Although natives of Canada, Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Trinidad took the oath of allegiance Wednesday, nearly two-thirds of the group were Hispanic.
One of the early arrivals was Martha Beatriz Url of Spokane. She offered a big smile, but quickly admitted being nervous.
“I didn’t have any good night’s sleep last night,” she said. “Just a couple of hours.”
A native of Durango, Mexico, Url said she decided to get her U.S. citizenship after living in Spokane for 11 years because the city is now her home.
“I realized this is going to be my place forever,” said the 37-year-old mother of two. “Now, if I was to leave, I’d miss it.”
Richland’s Rosa Nicacio, 59, represented a different generation of new citizens.
A native of Jalisco state in Mexico, she came to the United States in 1953 as a teenager. Her family immigrated after her father and other miners went on strike. The dispute dragged on and the family wanted to join relatives in Texas.
It took six months, she said, but the family finally got permission to immigrate.
“I always wanted to do it, but I was busy raising 10 children,” she said of her citizenship quest. “Finally, this year I said, ‘I’m going to do it.’ “The family’s been wanting me to do this forever,” she said.
She stopped and thought a minute. “You know, I’ve lived here longer than I lived in Mexico.”
Nicacio and Url were among the first to show up Wednesday, but most of the 31 new citizens milled about in the hallway with friends, sponsors and children a good 30 minutes before the ceremony.
When the doors to the courtroom opened, Virginia Palomares of the INS explained what would happen during the ceremony.
Federal Magistrate Cynthia Imbrogno quickly put the group at ease. She talked about her own ancestors leaving Italy to escape economic hardships.
Noting her mother-in-law was a naturalized citizen, Imbrogno encouraged friends and family to move about the court.
“Feel free to move around to get photos,” she said, adding that if people didn’t get the shots they wanted “we’ll recreate the moment. This is a special day.”
As Palomares read off their names and Imbrogno delivered their citizenship papers, families and friends rushed forward with cameras. There weren’t many “recreations.”
Richard Tung, a native of the Caribbean island of Trinidad, didn’t care about numbers and talk of Proposition 187.
Dressed in his U.S. Air Force fatigues, the airman first class was surrounded by a half-dozen other members of his unit. They patted him on the back and offered encouragement.
Asked what citizenship meant to him, Tung’s reply was simple: It means he can re-enlist. Without the papers, he couldn’t continue his military career.
Dahlstrom said he doesn’t see any easing in the rush to citizenship.
“Now that they’re new citizens, they can petition for their relatives,” he said, adding he expected some of Wednesday’s new citizens to stop by the INS office on their way home to pick up the paperwork. “We’re getting tons.”
Despite the huge jump in processing new citizens, Dahlstrom said his office hasn’t added any employees, although an Idaho staffer is temporarily helping Palomares wade through the backlog of applicants here.
Still, it could be worse. “L.A. did 8,000 in one ceremony,” Palomares said.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo