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South Florida Immigrants Defy Recent Trends; Actually Want to Be American

Last week the National Council of La Raza, the Hispanic civil rights organization, announced a stunning trend in immigration: In just one year, applications for U.S. citizenship dropped 62 percent.

That figure may be a tad misleading -- there were a surge of applications in 2007 to beat increases in application fees scheduled to take effect late that year. But it's still evident that an increase in the costs of applying for citizenship -- $595 now, compared to $330 at the start of 2007 -- combined with the faltering economy and declines in the income for non-citizens working in the U.S. to discourage immigrants from becoming citizens. Hell, even for those who can pay the costs that come with becoming an American, that status doesn't have the cachet that it used to.

And yet, as the Washington Post reports, during the same year both D.C. and South Florida actually increased, significantly, the number of immigrants who sought citizenship.

This afternoon I spoke with NCLR Policy Director Marisabel Torres to see if she could explain why this region's immigrants were different.

In particular, there's a notable difference between the immigrants in Florida and those in Texas, for instance. This, the fourth-largest state, is in the top three for numbers of immigrants applying for citizenship, while Texas, despite being the second-largest state and having a huge Latin American population, isn't in the top three.

As for what exactly that factor is, Torres is reluctant to guess. There are too many variables. But generally, her organization's researchers have found: "The longer (an ethnic group) has been here, the more likely they are to naturalize here."

Torres stopped short of saying that the local Cuban community's economic progress made those families more able to afford the rising costs of citizenship, though that seems a plausible theory, too.

A portion of the credit for this region's beating the trend, said Torres, may be that "community-based organizations have been active in promoting the benefits of naturalizing."

That certainly is a goal that's central to the NCLR mission. The group, which is part of the coalition leading a boycott of CNN anchor Lou Dobbs for his tendency to castigate American politicians for being soft on immigration.

"Citizenship is so important in the context of the national debate about immigration," says Torres. "But there are unnatural barriers being thrown at immigrants." Chief among them, the costs of applying for citizenship. "There's such a huge benefit to naturalization -- your standard of living goes up exponentially," says Torres. But the costs, which also jumped dramatically in 1997, have also been going up exponentially.

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Thomas Francis

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