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Gaining citizenship no easy task

DATELINE: MINNEAPOLIS, The Associated Press State & Local Wire July 4, 2002

More and more immigrants in Minnesota are planning early - sometimes a year in advance - for the exams that will determine whether they can become a naturalized citizen.

It's a sign that voting rights and other benefits are becoming a priority for immigrants, some officials said. They cite the election in January of Mee Moua, a DFLer from St. Paul who became the nation's first Hmong state legislator. Moua's campaign registered more than 500 first-time Hmong voters and won 51 percent of the vote.

"That consciousness is just developing now in Minnesota," said Jorge Saavedra, executive director of Centro Legal, which helps Latinos with the citizenship process. "I think that's going to surge here in the coming years."

In two weeks, Khadijo Abdulle will have a 20-minute interview with immigration officials that will cap a year-long effort to improve her English and learn American history.

Displaced by a civil war that tore apart her native Somalia, left her husband and daughter dead and her home in ashes, the once wealthy store owner isn't looking back.

"I want to vote," said Abdulle, 52.

Said her daughter, Ubah Hashi: "She doesn't feel Somalian. She feels American."

The process of gaining citizenship typically takes eight months from the date a 10-page application - with a $310 fee - is filed, to when an interview is scheduled.

Many immigrants take citizenship classes through community groups. Some delay the process because they are unable to pay the application fee while others avoid the Immigration and Naturalization Service altogether for fear of unfounded retribution, said officials who work with immigrants.

"It is a very confusing and long process," said Shoua Xiong, citizenship coordinator for MORE, a multicultural St. Paul school that helps immigrants. Xiong said MORE has helped 500 immigrants become citizens since its founding seven years ago.

In the program's two-story house Abdulle and Hashi gather with friends from across the world to study English and U.S. government and history twice a week for three-hour stretches. It's a refuge, some say, that plays a pivotal role in attaining citizenship.

"This is the best place," said Martha Izaola, 36, a native of Honduras who earned her citizenship this year. "It's most important to be a citizen."

Naturalization ensures immigrants that they can't be deported and allows them to petition to bring over relatives, among other benefits. But it's gaining American status that motivates them most, they said.

"I have a new language, a new country," Hashi said. "I have to become a citizen."

About 6,000 immigrants were naturalized in the Twin Cities last year, most from Laos, Somalia and Vietnam, compared with about 2,000 in 1997. Officials at the INS estimate that about 20 percent of applicants each year are denied citizenship for reasons varying from criminal records to poor English skills.