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Immigrant voters' dreams snagged by red tape

  • Story Highlights
  • Immigrants file for naturalization in hopes of voting but find frustration
  • Manny Barajas says he wants to "make my vote count"
  • Felipe Lopez started paper trail to citizenship almost two years ago
  • Government says backlog of applications caused by lack of resources
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By John King
CNN Chief National Correspondent
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LAS VEGAS, Nevada (CNN) -- Manny Barajas was eagerly awaiting his first taste of American democracy. Instead, he is learning a frustrating lesson in government bureaucracy.

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Manny Barajas said his family has urged him to pursue citizenship in the United States.

Barajas is one example of the excitement caused by Nevada's decision to grab an early spot on the presidential nominating calendar -- one of thousands of immigrants in the United States legally who have rushed to file for naturalization and voting rights.

Those hopes are evident in a trailer-turned-classroom on the city's outskirts, where a nonprofit organization called the Citizenship Project teaches the nuts and bolts of American history. Christopher Columbus was the topic when CNN dropped by for a visit this week.

Across town at his union's headquarters, a frustrated Barajas spoke for many who have already taken the classes.

"I was hoping that I could be ready to go in '08," Barajas said.

Barajas came to the United States from Mexico nearly 40 years ago and has raised a family in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he works as a waiter. For years, he said, family and friends have urged him to apply for citizenship; the decision to hold a Democratic presidential caucus next January was the clincher.

"The American dream brings me to Las Vegas," Barajas told us when we first met nine months ago. "And the last thing for me to do is become a citizen and make my vote count."

But when we checked in this week, Barajas told a tale of frustration.

He filed his paperwork more than six months ago but hasn't heard a word from the government. His union says it knows of at least 1,000 in similar limbo.

"Our people are willing to pay the money. Learn whatever they have to learn and they are getting discouraged because we have to wait because the process is so slow," Barajas said this week.

Barajas is at the beginning of the process. Felipe Lopez at the end -- but also in limbo.

"I am waiting almost two years -- it is a long time," said Lopez, who came to the United States from Mexico 14 years ago and drives a truck for a seafood distributor.

Lopez showed us the paper trail of his frustration. He first applied in January 2006. He passed the citizenship test 16 months ago. The last step is a background check -- and three times Lopez says he has been called in for the required fingerprinting. The last time was four months ago. Still no word on if and when he will be approved to take the oath of citizenship.

"We need a letter," Lopez said. "That is what I need. A letter."

The Department of Homeland Security says the process should take seven months -- start to finish. But it acknowledges a growing backlog; there are nearly 900,000 pending applications now -- almost twice as many as a year ago.

The government says it is a simple case of increased demand and limited resources.

The way Barajas sees it, some money spent on battling illegal immigration could be redirected temporarily to clear the backlog and clear the path for legal immigrants.

"I think it is a little discrimination, because they focus on the bad part of immigration." Barajas said. "What about all these people who have been in the country legally and paying their taxes?"

Unions are a major force behind the citizenship drive and some labor leaders here wonder aloud if a Republican administration is perhaps dragging its feet processing the applications of people it believes are likely to become Democratic voters.

The administration says that is not the case, that the backlog is simply a question of resources.

Barajas, who is active in Culinary Union organizing, is without a doubt a Democrat -- though he says he is not sure just yet who he would support if he had a chance to vote in the January Democratic caucus. Now, his best hope is being processed in time for the November election.

As for Lopez, he is not as politically active but says it is "very important to me" to finally get a chance to participate, and that while frustrated he hopes to be a citizen -- and a registered voter - by the November general election. Asked about his political preferences, he shrugs, then adds, "I like Bush, but he is almost gone." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

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