Thomas D. Elias: Another citizenship flood begins |

Thomas D. Elias: Another citizenship flood begins

For anyone with memories going back just 12 years, there has to be a sense of déjà vu these days as anti-illegal immigration activists turn up their volume, pro-immigration activists march with or without Mexican flags and the prospect of mass deportations and revoking government privileges becomes fodder for conversation and radio talk.

Back in 1994, the catalyst for a spate of similar activity was California’s Proposition 187, which passed by a margin of almost 2-1 and sought to deprive illegal immigrants of virtually every government benefit they enjoyed, including public education and emergency room care. Federal courts later decimated the proposition.

But not before thousands of anti-187 marchers carried large Mexican flags through the centers of every major city in the state and stirred a backlash that saw a marked rise in hate crimes against Latinos, even some who had been citizens and whose families had been in California longer than almost anyone else.

The eventual consequence was a mass charge toward citizenship, with more than 2.5 million legal immigrants gaining U.S. citizenship in California during the three years after 187 qualified for the ballot. For Republicans, this spelled disaster, turning California from a swing state that usually backed GOP presidential candidates to one that has backed Democrats in every national election since 1988.

Citizenship applicants said at the time they were motivated by fear that if illegal immigrants were targeted first, those here legally would be next. Their only protection against potential discrimination and second-class treatment, they believed, was to become citizens. More than 1.5 million of them also became voters, mostly registering as Democrats. It is probably no accident that since that watershed year, three speakers of the state Assembly have been Latinos – current Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, current Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and current Speaker Fabian Nunez, all Democrats.

The most visible product of this year’s vocal rise in anti-immigration sentiment, rhetoric and activity has been mass demonstrations by illegals and their supporters. Overall, the outpouring has been among the largest in the history of the Western Hemisphere.

But a quiet response that began long before the marches and protests might turn out more important in the long term.

For another run on citizenship by legal residents has begun, once again motivated by fear, this time in large part fear that their legal standing might be revoked or revised as part of some putative new guest worker program. Just as last time, there are myriad worries, mostly unjustified by fact, but the response to them is definite.

This time, the majority of the action is not in California as it was in the ’90s, though there is an increase in naturalization applications here, too. Today the response is national in scope, and it bears the potential to become national in consequence.

Ever since the House of Representatives last December approved a bill by Wisconsin Republican James Sensenbrenner (disclosure: Sensenbrenner was a college classmate of the author), legal immigrants have again flooded citizenship offices and privately-run ethnic service centers that arose across America after passage of 187.

Fully 53,390 persons filed applications for citizenship with the Homeland Security Department’s Citizenship and Immigration Services office in January, up 23 percent from last year.

Another 57,056 applied in February, a 34 percent increase from last year. And in March, the citizenship agency reported 162,000 computer downloads of its naturalization forms.

If the rush continues at that pace through the rest of this year, it could produce more than 600,000 new citizens. If it continued for two or three years, the number would be in the millions – even more if the phenomenon were to snowball as it did after 1994.

And just as last time, there are beginning to be signs of hate crimes resulting from the rhetoric. The death threats made against Bustamante and Villaraigosa just after a huge March pro-immigrant demonstration in Los Angeles are one symptom of this trend.

And just like last time, it is Republicans beware. Immigrants both legal and illegal in 1994 knew it was Republican Gov. Pete Wilson leading the charge for Proposition 187 and against them. They have contributed heavily to making California Democratic.

Similarly, immigrants know it is Colorado Republican Rep. Tom Tancredo who leads today’s most active and vocal anti-immigration forces and they know Sensenbrenner is a Republican, too. So there’s a good chance the current citizenship drive could turn into another Democratic bonanza, GOP disaster. If Republicans cannot finesse this issue, it could become another case of those who forget history living to see it repeated.


Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist whose work appears in The Union. Contact him via e-mail at

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