Politics & Government

Trump candidacy inspires Mexican immigrants to scramble for citizenship

Jesus Sanchez, right, a Donald Trump supporter, hugs Leon Powell, a Trump protester after the Republican presidential candidate's rally at the Tucson Arena in downtown Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT
Jesus Sanchez, right, a Donald Trump supporter, hugs Leon Powell, a Trump protester after the Republican presidential candidate's rally at the Tucson Arena in downtown Tucson, Ariz., Saturday, March 19, 2016. (Mike Christy/Arizona Daily Star via AP) MANDATORY CREDIT AP

DALLAS -- Presidential candidate Donald Trump wants to build a huge wall along the Mexican border.

Mexican immigrants Lilia Garcia and Antonino Reyes want to build one around themselves.

This month, Garcia and Reyes joined a growing surge of legal permanent residents across the country inspired to seek U.S. citizenship in an effort to defend themselves against the leading Republican candidate.

Call it "efecto Trump," the Trump effect.

"I want to vote now," says Garcia, a 52-year-old native of Irapuato. "It will be easier to get my rights, and I want to show solidarity with the people who still need documents."

Reyes, who is 84, fingers yellowed Mexican documents that look fragile like leaves and explain life passages like birth, marriage and entry into the U.S. Reyes wants to vote, too. "I want to do this because I see this senor Donald Trump. He's crazy," Reyes says.

Garcia, Reyes and other Mexican immigrants have an unusual ally in their quest -- the Mexican government. The U.S. citizenship workshops at Mexican consulates are a first for the Mexican government -- and part of a chain of such events being held by key consulates in the U.S., said Victor Arriaga, deputy Mexican consul in Dallas. The consulate is working with groups like Catholic Charities and the North Texas Dream Team and with pro-bono lawyers.

Arriaga worked the crowd at a recent Saturday workshop, telling them they could retain Mexican citizenship while also holding U.S. citizenship.

"It is perfectly fine to have a second nationality," Arriaga said, explaining a Mexican law in 1998 that changed the rules covering Mexican citizenship and nationality. "People are very proud of being Mexican and want to retain their Mexican identity. But they can still be a citizen here and experience their rights here."

Not since George Wallace, the then-governor of Alabama, in 1968 has there been such a heated presidential race involving attacks on groups of people, says Jesus Velasco, a political scientist at Tarleton State University. "Right now is a special moment in the history of the United States."

Although there are some barrier walls along some portions of the border, Trump has said he would build an ever-higher wall. He's also said he'd increase the number of federal agents at the border, though the number increased over the last decade to nearly 20,000. And he shocked many by saying the Mexican government wasn't sending their "best people" but people who bring drugs and were rapists.

The words prompted Mexico's Foreign Relations Minister Claudia Ruiz Massieu recently to call Trump's comments "ignorante y racista."

Trump's response to the furor: "The Hispanics love me."

Velasco, the political scientist, said the Mexican government is trying to capitalize on the anger at Trump among many Mexican immigrants, who are likely to vote Democrat.

It's impact is difficult to gauge, though. What is certain for now is that Mexicans have had some of the lowest naturalization rates among immigrant groups who have the green cards of legal permanent residency. There are about 8.8 million legal residents eligible to naturalize overall and 30 percent of those are Mexicans, the top percentage around the globe, according to 2013 estimates by the U. S. Department of Homeland Security.

The Pew Research Center found even more troubling findings in their 2013 "The Path Not Taken" study. Nearly two-thirds of Mexicans who were eligible to become U.S. citizens haven't taken the step, which includes taking a citizenship test.

"For Mexicans, the language barrier and being afraid to take the test are the main reasons," said Ana Gonzalez-Barrera, a Pew research associate. A 1996 U.S. immigration law toughened treatment of immigrants. That inspired several foreign governments to change their laws regarding dual nationality, as "a sort of protection," Gonzalez-Barrera said. "This is the first time the Mexican government is helping out and facilitating the naturalization," she said.

Other campaigns have been launched nationally around naturalization. Among them are the Latino Victory Project and the National Partnership for New Americans, which calls the campaign the New American Democracy. They use Trump's "they are not sending their best" statements meshed with video of immigrants and their job titles: scientist, lawyer, community organizer, astronaut. The ending: "Our future is at stake. "NaturalizeNow."

The U.S. offers exemptions to its English-language civics test and allows for certain immigrants to take the test in their native language. They include exemptions for those over the age of 50 who have lived in the U.S. for 20 years as a permanent resident and another for those over the age of 55 who have lived as a permanent resident in the U.S. for 15 years.

Across the nation, the flow of citizenship applications has increased 14.5 percent in the six months through January, the most recent data available, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Dallas has the nation's fourth-largest population of Mexican immigrants, after Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a D.C. nonprofit.

It can take up to six months for application processing in North Texas at the federal citizenship agency. At two weekend citizenship workshops in Dallas, volunteers saw hundreds of applicants, including a 93-year-old man.

"They are so enthusiastic about being citizens," said Martin Valko, a volunteer lawyer at the event. Most told Valko they wanted to vote in this year's presidential election.

Yasmin Rascon, a 38-year-old Chihuahua native with two U.S. citizen sons, said she applied for U.S. citizenship because of the anti-immigrant atmosphere in the U.S. elections.

"With the situation, I thought it was best to convert to U.S. citizenship," Rascon said. "I won't lose my Mexican nationality. I'll have dual citizenship."

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