Monday, February 04, 2002

Sept. 11 sets off stampede for citizenship

Patriotism, fear could be behind leap in applicants

By Dan Horn
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Motivated by fear, patriotism, or both, thousands of immigrants have rushed to become U.S. citizens since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

        More than 145,000 people nationwide applied for citizenship in October and November, a 61 percent jump from the same months in 2000.

        Some immigrants say they applied because they fear the Sept. 11 attacks will spawn tougher immigration rules, making it difficult to stay in this country without citizenship.

        Others say the attacks inspired them to strengthen their bond to America. For them, one immigration official says, citizenship is a “patriotic gesture.”

        Abdul Rauf, a 34-year-old native of Pakistan, filled out his application in Cincinnati just two weeks after the attacks.

        “A lot of people I know didn't want to give up their own nationality,” Mr. Rauf said. “But believe me, it's different now. I want to feel like an American citizen.”

        For Mr. Rauf and other immigrants, the decision to become a U.S. citizen is one of the most difficult they will ever make. Many are reluctant to formally sever ties to their home countries.

        But after Sept. 11, immigrants who had wrestled with the decision for years made up their minds to pursue citizenship.

        “Many, many people who were on the sidelines are coming forward and doing this,” said Firooz Namei, an immigration lawyer in Cincinnati. “This has absolutely changed everything.”

        He said citizenship is now a priority for his clients, especially Muslims, because they suspect America's “war on terrorism” will lead to more restrictions on non-citizens. They worry that some day they might even be forced out of the country.

        Those suspicions are reinforced with every complaint about racial profiling at airports and every news report about the detention of a Muslim immigrant, Mr. Namei said.

        “They want to say, "Look, we had nothing to do with this atrocity. We're not like that,'” said Mr. Namei, who has received about 50 calls from clients inquiring about citizenship since Sept. 11.

        “They are afraid they might be picked up (by authorities) some day and not have the rights of a citizen.”

The fear factor

               The fear of legal problems is common among immigrants, even in the best of times.

        No matter how long they have lived in America, immigrants without citizenship face more restrictions in their daily lives and stiffer punishments if they run afoul of the law.

        A U.S. citizen might be sentenced to probation for an infraction such as shoplifting or misdemeanor assault. But a non-citizen could be deported and barred from returning to America.

        “People are a little apprehensive,” said Dr. Salem Foad, a board member at the Islamic Center in West Chester Township. “They are not sure what will happen in the future.”

        Mr. Rauf, the Pakistani immigrant, said the uncertainty about his future after Sept. 11 inspired him to apply for citizenship.

        He has worked legally in the United States for years as a limousine driver in New York and Ohio. He always figured he'd apply for citizenship some day, but was in no hurry.

        “Then this thing happened,” Mr. Rauf said of the terrorist attacks, “and I thought, "The sooner the better.'”

        Richard Fleischer, an immigration lawyer in Cincinnati for 29 years, has heard the same story from several of his clients.

        He said the “hysteria” about terrorism after Sept. 11 convinced many Muslim immigrants they were at risk to get caught up in a government crackdown, even if they did nothing wrong.

        “I don't think the government is doing that,” Mr. Fleischer said. “But the perception is there.”

        So far, at least, the worst fears of immigrants appear to be unfounded. The number of immigrants deported or denied entry to the U.S. actually dropped in October and November, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

        Nevertheless, citizenship applications shot up 61 percent over that period, including a 99 percent increase in November 2001 compared with November 2000.

        Local numbers are not yet available for applications since Sept. 11. But Cincinnati typically accounts for about 25 percent of the 7,000 people who become citizens in Ohio every year.

        Immigration lawyers say the growing interest in citizenship involves people of all nationalities, not just Muslims. Everyone, they say, would be affected if immigration laws are tightened.

Patriotic gesture

               Some INS officials think patriotism — not fear — is the driving force behind the surge in applications.

        They say the solidarity Americans showed in the face of tragedy may have given some immigrants the nudge they needed to make their citizenship official.

        “I attribute it to patriotism,” said Mark Hansen, district director of the INS in Ohio. “I think the vast majority did it as a patriotic gesture, rather than because they worried about getting arrested.”

        Applicants must have lived legally here for at least five years and are required to pass a civics test, an English test and a background check. The application process typically takes several months.

        Mr. Hansen said the number of applications often increases when fees are about to go up or when more restrictive laws are about to take effect.

        The last big increase came in 1996 when an anti-terrorism law made it much easier for authorities to deport foreign visitors.

        An anticipated fee hike may have contributed to some of the increase last year, but the numbers did not go up dramatically until after Sept. 11.

        “They're sky high,” Mr. Hansen said.

Citizens by choice

               Despite the many benefits of citizenship, immigrants from Middle Eastern backgrounds acknowledge the legal distinction is no guarantee they will be welcomed with open arms.

        They say their ethnicity, their skin color and their accents will mark them as being different no matter what their legal status.

        Majed Dabdoub, president of Cincinnati's Arab American Association, said Sept. 11 stirred anti-Islamic hostility. More than once, he said, he's received anonymous calls urging him to “go back home.”

        “We have a commitment for this country even more than people who were born here,” Mr. Dabdoub said. “I chose to become an American. If you were born here, you didn't have a choice.”

        He said he's not surprised so many immigrants have made the same choice since Sept. 11. He just hopes America embraces them.

        “We are citizens,” Mr. Dabdoub said. “We came to this country to raise our children, to live in peace, to enjoy our freedoms.”


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