More than one million, mostly Latin American, U.S. permanent residents applying for citizenship are being denied “the ability to vote and fully participate in determining the future of the country” charged the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Educational Fund (PRLDEF) on March 7 as they filed suit against the federal government’s Department of Homeland Security.

The suit demands the court to order the Bush administration to speed up the naturalization process so all who apply and are eligible by March 26, 2008, can become citizens “in time to register for the November 2008 election.” PRLDEF states in the complaint, “With the presidential elections nine months away, these delays take on a particular significance, as hundreds of thousands of applicants” will be denied the right to take part in the decision making electoral process in a “time of widespread anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment.” According to PRLDEF this anti-immigrant sentiment is a motivating factor in the decision of many Hispanic legal residents to become citizens “so as to be able to vote in this year’s elections.”

Many also filed for citizenship last year in anticipation of higher fees, jumping almost 70 percent, which can hinder many low-income residents from applying for citizenship. The New York office of the United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) reports a backlog of 90,000 applications alone.

The class action suit, brought forth with the assistance of the non-profit public interest law firm the New York Legal Assistance Group (NYLAG), names seven citizenship seekers.

One of these plaintiffs, Nancy Castro has been in the US since 1983 and applied for citizenship in the summer of 2006. Her original interview was cancelled and never rescheduled. She has been waiting over 18 months.

Another one of the plaintiffs, Margoth Pérez de Chalampa, who applied just before the increase, was told by the USCIS “that all naturalization applications may take approximately 16-18 months to process, before the applicant is even scheduled for an interview and examination.”

The right to vote is not the only thing at stake here for these and other immigrants. Many other benefits are based on the being a U.S. citizen. Omar Miguel Farfan applied for citizenship while serving in the U.S. Navy in the 1990s. He is currently taking college courses and wants to work within the federal civil service but cannot unless he is a citizen.

In Farfan’s case the USCIS informed him they “lost” his first application. He applied again, was interviewed and examined, and was told he was eligible for citizenship in 2005 but heard nothing more. He has since been told for almost three years his citizenship is being held up “pending security background checks.”

Manuel Alberto Martínez has also been told his swearing in is being held up for the last two years “pending security background checks,” so not being a citizen he cannot bring his elderly mother from Mexico. Martínez also is eager to vote next November, not only because of the immigrant and Latino bashing, but also because he “is deeply concerned about federal economic policies,” according to the PRLDEF complaint.

Besides voting rights, family reunification and job opportunities, these immigrants are also denied the right to travel, even to visit family in the country of their birth, since they do not have “the guarantee of re-admission into the country upon their return” even though they are legal permanent residents, says the PRLDEF complaint. A number of educational, loan and other benefits are also denied non-citizens.

A number of organizations representing or serving Hispanics and immigrants have lauded the PRLDEF suit. Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials say his group “applauds PRLDEF’s leadership in taking this action.” Vargas noted that his organization together with the media companies Univision and Impremedia started a campaign last year to get Latinos to become citizens. The National Council of La Raza and the Service Employees International Union also joined in this effort.

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