The number of immigrants applying for U.S. citizenship rose to a record 14,000 last year in Minnesota, increasing wait times as foreign-born residents sought to get ahead of a fee hike and become eligible to vote. Concern about anti-immigrant sentiment also motivated some. Most of the newly minted citizens at a naturalization ceremony in St. Paul on Wednesday filled out voter registration cards after singing "The Star Spangled Banner."
"I've been very interested in politics, and the right to vote is important to me," said Marat Demyanuk, a native of Belarus who has followed the presidential contest by catching TV news at the gym where he works.
Citizenship applications in Minnesota have tripled since 2000, while the nationwide number doubled between 2005 and 2007.
Officials said the rush is the biggest since an amnesty in the late 1980s. And last year's record number in the state doesn't count those who are still awaiting action on their applications from 2006 and earlier.
"This is definitely the largest increase in citizenship applications in recent memory," said Marilu Cabrera of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. "It's not just the Minnesota office but everywhere across the nation."
The fee for processing naturalization papers climbed from $400 to $675 on July 30, prompting a surge of applications ahead of the increase.
Cabrera said the Bloomington immigration office is processing the applications as quickly as possible, and plans to fill 18 staff positions, expand hours and may hire more workers later.
U.S. law requires citizenship applications to be processed within 120 days, but that standard hasn't been met in years, Cabrera said. Instead, the average application takes seven months in Minnesota, but some wait longer - particularly if FBI security checks are required.
The lag has prompted many lawsuits, according to David Walsh, president of the local chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association.
"I've got one client who is a manager at a major airline, with access to the airport, yet he hasn't been able to get clearance from the FBI to become a citizen for five years," Walsh said.
Augustin Pina of Richfield, a native Mexican, said he became a citizen at Wednesday's ceremony out of concern over the immigration debate and to have a vote.
"Before there wasn't much discrimination; that's why I stayed a permanent resident for 17 years," Pina said. "That's changing."
More than 10,000 immigrants became citizens in Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin last year, up from 4,600 in 2000.
Federal judges in the state have scheduled 55 naturalization ceremonies for this year, up from 37 last year.
--- Information from: Star Tribune, http://www.startribune.com