WASHINGTON -- The Clinton administration says it will actively encourage legal immigrants to become U.S. citizens, a new policy intended to counter hostility toward immigrants.
The effort could enfranchise millions of people who have lived in the United States for years without seeking citizenship. When immigrants become citizens, they gain the right to vote, to hold public office and to serve on juries.
Becoming citizens also would make it easier for them to get jobs as police officers or teachers in public schools, because such jobs are reserved for citizens in some states, and would make it easier for them to bring in certain close relatives.
The Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 10 million legal permanent residents who are not citizens live in the United States. By the turn of the century, that group could constitute one-fourth of the population in some cities, including New York, Los Angeles and Miami.
Until now, the federal government has not promoted naturalization, and the complexity of the naturalization process probably has discouraged many immigrants from applying for citizenship. In addition, many immigrants express ambivalent feelings, wishing to become part of U.S. society while also retaining roots in their homelands.
Doris M. Meissner, the new INS commissioner, said in an interview this week that the new policy was intended to ease tensions over immigration.
"We have to do as much as we can to promote naturalization," said Mrs. Meissner, who took office Oct. 18. "I am very concerned about the anti-immigrant feelings we see in various parts of the country and in Congress. Naturalization helps counteract anti-immigrant attitudes. When people become citizens, they accept our values and most Americans are reassured."
The new policy is also inspired by the fact that 3 million immigrants who gained legal status under the amnesty provisions of a 1986 law are becoming eligible for citizenship.
Sam Bernsen, a lawyer who worked at the INS for more than 35 years, said the new policy has profound implications.
"For the first time," he said, "the government will affirmatively go out and encourage aliens to become citizens. They would then have a voice in our political system, with voting rights, and could run for public office."
Mrs. Meissner said the government would work with private groups to publicize the advantages of citizenship and to expedite the handling of applications.
She also said that without lowering standards for citizenship, she intends to simplify naturalization procedures and to seek additional money and employees to review applications.
Hispanic and Asian American groups welcomed the new emphasis on naturalization. But some lawyers, noting that the INS is already deluged with work, say they doubt that it can efficiently handle hundreds of thousands of new applications.
Many immigrants, especially those from Mexico, remain lawful permanent residents for many years without seeking U.S. citizenship. In part, that is because permanent resident aliens have many rights of citizens, including the right to work and to obtain some government benefits.
Mexicans, for example, tend to retain close ties to their homeland after becoming permanent residents of the United States. Many believe they would jeopardize the right to own property in Mexico if they became U.S. citizens, but the Mexican Embassy in Washington says that fear is unfounded.
"We have never been very aggressive in encouraging resident aliens to naturalize. That has to change. Naturalization builds bridges between new immigrant groups and the existing society, much as labor unions, political parties and public schools have done in the past." Mrs. Meissner said.
Charles Kamasaki, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic advocacy group, said it would be "an enormous change" if the government actively promoted naturalization.
"The government claims to have a neutral policy toward citizenship," he said. "But because of all the obstacles in place, it is, in effect, discouraging citizenship. Only the most resourceful, highly motivated people make it through the process."
In general, lawful permanent residents are permitted to apply for citizenship after residing in the United States for five years. They must demonstrate an ability to read, write and speak English and a knowledge of the history and government of the United States.
Federal officials say the government can handle more applications if it revises the naturalization process so that private, nonprofit groups do part of the work.
"It's extremely important to be promoting naturalization. If we fail to do it, there is an increasing danger of native-born Americans' saying these immigrants are not loyal to the United States," said Rick Swartz, a Washington lawyer who advises immigrant and ethnic groups.