Wednesday, May 21, 2008

For some, politics begets citizenship

SAN FRANCISCO — Emmanuel Addo has carefully followed American politics for a long time now — longer even than the 18 years he has lived in this country.

But it took the excitement surrounding this year's upcoming presidential election for the San Leandro resident and immigrant from Ghana to decide he should stop talking about politics and start voting. On Tuesday, Addo joined 1,474 other Bay Area immigrants from 100 countries who took the oath of citizenship during a mass ceremony in San Francisco.

"For the past five years I've been thinking about applying, applying, applying," Addo said. "I guess Obama did it for me. Obama and the war."

The presidential campaign, organized citizenship drives and advance warning about a $275 spike in naturalization fees helped fuel a record number of citizenship applications last year, said Sharon Rummery, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Now, despite an ongoing backlog of applications, the effects of that citizenship rush are beginning to be seen.

Inside the spacious auditorium atop San Francisco's Nob Hill, the federal immigration service has naturalized more than 17,000 people so far this year during 12 mass ceremonies. The agency has scheduled an additional 11 such ceremonies from June through September, which could accommodate an estimated 16,000 new citizens in the Bay Area.

Rummery said the ceremonies now happen about three times per month and accommodate Advertisementmore than 1,400 people each time, compared with two per month with about 1,200 per ceremony last year, she said. Those numbers do not include immigrants from the region between San Jose and Monterey, who attend a different naturalization ceremony held in Campbell.

Addo was one of many Tuesday who reflected on a long road to American citizenship.

As a teenager growing up in Accra, Ghana's capital, he often found himself hanging out in an American cultural center because it had better movies, snacks and hot chocolate than a rival center run by the Soviet Union. Addo read books about famous African Americans and watched dated TV news broadcasts.

"It was almost one week old, but we watched it eagerly," Addo said. Despite being immersed in American media, Addo said he was surprised by the reality and difficulty of life in the United States after arriving as a college student.

"I expected too much. It took me a week to realize I was living in a fantasy world," he said. He became a legal permanent resident a decade ago and works as a counselor for Oakland high school students. But he said it was not until this election, and particularly Sen. Barack Obama's candidacy, that he felt inspired enough to take part.

"The election energized me. Made me more serious, more involved," said Addo. "I just realized, 'You know what? I'm part of the system.'''

Democrat and Republican party activists waited outside the California Street facility on Tuesday morning, hoping to register new voters.

Union City resident Virginia Aleman said she also wants to vote for Obama, but that was not the primary factor that drove the Mexican immigrant to become a citizen on Tuesday.

"I like following the rules," she said.

Aleman, a sales manager at a computer company, said her chief reason for applying is so that her parents can join her in the United States. Aleman, whose family watched from a balcony, was surprised at how emotional she felt during the ceremony.

"I didn't realize it until I was there," she said. "I'm really happy."

Family and other personal considerations continue to be a key driver of citizenship. But the spike in naturalization fees from $400 to $675 last summer caused many who were thinking about applying to rush to do so before the fees went up.

Rummery said that rush contributed to a 365 percent increase in applications during the summer months. The resulting backlog of cases caused criticism as advocates blamed federal authorities for being unprepared.

Javier Angulo, director of civic education for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said that as of February, there were still 23,237 pending citizenship applications at the San Francisco office and 22,980 at the San Jose office, according to information he said was supplied by immigration officials last week.

But Angulo said the backlog is worse in other parts of the country. Angulo, whose organization partnered with Latino media outlets to launch a citizenship drive early last year, said the group met with California-based immigration officials to make sure they had enough staff.

"They prepared months ago to take in this wave of applications," he said. In Los Angeles, he said, there were about 117,000 pending cases as of February, which he said he hopes will translate to another 117,000 new citizens and voters before Oct. 20, the last day for Californians to register for the November election.

Rummery said the Northern California office is training additional staff members to accommodate the applications, but she said the priority is making sure those applications are processed correctly, not rushed so that people can vote.

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