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Legal Immigrants Rush for Citizenship

The debate over immigration reform is on hold in Washington, while politicians take the discussion to the American people, with a series of public hearings being held around the country. Meanwhile, the uncertainty over the future of U.S. immigration policy is leading more legal permanent residents to apply for citizenship.

Fabiola Valencia came to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico, 13 years ago. She works at a casino in Scottsdale, Arizona. She says she's been eligible to apply for U.S. citizenship for the last eight years, but only decided to do so this month. Valencia says after all this time, now is when she needs citizenship the most. "To be able to vote," she says... "to help my family, my people, and to change the laws to favor us."

On Saturday, Valencia attended a 'naturalization fair' at a Phoenix elementary school. Volunteers helped her and dozens of other legal immigrants fill out applications to become citizens. When pressed, most said they're afraid their permanent residency may no longer guarantee they can stay in the United States.

The fair organizers also held a workshop to teach immigrants about the political process, and who's who in the immigration debate. The event is part of what's been dubbed Democracy Summer, a national push to encourage legal immigrants to become citizens. Activists hope to register a million new voters. Democracy Summer is organized by the "We Are America" alliance, the coalition behind many of the pro-immigrant marches this spring. "Because of the marches, people want to know what they can do to help change what's going on right now, says Lydia Hernandez, one of the fair organizers. There's a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment. There's legislation they want to impact."

That legislation is on hold in Congress. The Senate has approved a guest worker program. The House wants tougher sanctions for employers who hire undocumented workers. The two sides have yet to reach a middle ground, and in the uncertain interim, more people are applying for citizenship.

According to Marie Sebrechts, spokeswoman for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, "Throughout immigration history, whenever there's been talk about immigration change or reform, we've seen increases." She says the number of citizenship applications from October through May was up 15% compared to the same period the year before. She says it's hard to pinpoint any one reason more immigrants are applying right now.

But Arizona State Representative and immigration lawyer Ben Miranda says the reason is simple: People are scared. "The only reason people are becoming citizens in larger numbers," he says, "is because with the wave of anti-immigrant legislation we've seen, I think the reaction has been, become a citizen, it's the ultimate form of protection."

At the naturalization fair, Ramon Lopez offered yet another reason. The Phoenix mechanic has lived in the United States for 22 years. He said with all the anti-immigrant sentiment out there, he wants to prove that immigrants can be upstanding and contributing members of society. Lopez says he wants to become a citizen in order to have new opportunity, to help the country, to pay taxes and be respected.