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Welfare reform sparks rush for U.S. citizenship


August 8, 1996
Web posted at: 12:00 a.m. EDT

From Correspondent Greg Lamotte

LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- A rush of legal immigrants-turned-American citizens is giving new life to the United States' reputation as the world's melting pot.

At no time in history has the number of applicants for U.S. citizenship been so large. In Los Angeles County alone, it's quadrupled in just two years.

"In '94 I think we were running about 75,000 applications a year. Last year, we ran about 175,000, and we're looking at about 300,000 this year," said Richard Rogers, who works in the Los Angeles branch of the Immigration and Naturalization Service.


The numbers are up, not so much because more people are coming to the United States, but because people who are here legally are afraid of losing their federal benefits. In particular, the welfare reform package would end benefits for all legal immigrants who aren't citizens, including welfare, food stamps and supplemental security income or SSI.

One woman, a 69-year-old Armenian legal immigrant, has been in the United States for 10 years. She just applied for citizenship because she's afraid of losing SSI, which is her only source of income. "I have no income and don't know what will happen to me," said Knarik Hacobian. "How am I going to live, or pay the rent?"


Legal residents, many of whom have been in the United States for 20 or 30 years, haven't rushed through the citizenship process in greater numbers in part because they haven't learned English. They also didn't hurry because they didn't need to be citizens to get federal benefits.

Arpi Khanjian, who works at the Armenian Relief Society, said the average age of a citizenship candidate was once between 40 and 50 years old. "Now it's over 65 because they are afraid of losing their benefits," Khanjian said.

Immigration and Naturalization Service officials hope to reduce the citizenship process from 15 months to just six. It may be difficult to streamline the process, however, considering the giant increase in applicants, especially among the elderly and disabled.


Another woman, 101 years old, was also filing for citizenship the day CNN visited the INS, also to protect her benefits.

But lest you suspect that only people who stand to lose benefits want to become U.S. citizens, despair not. Some simply want to be Americans.

"I want to vote," said Ara Abarchian, a 31-year-old legal resident. "I want to know what's going on in the United States. It's really important for me." (255K AIFF or WAV sound)icon


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