A record 14,000 immigrants filed applications last year in Minnesota to become U.S. citizens, driven by a desire to beat a rise in application fees, concern about growing anti-immigrant sentiment and a strong desire to vote for the next U.S. president.

And that doesn't include those people whose applications are backed up at a regional processing center, or the thousands of immigrants who filed in 2006 and are still awaiting action.

"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."

In Minnesota, the number of immigrants applying for citizenship tripled from 2000 to 2007. Nationally, the number nearly doubled in just two years, from 600,000 in 2005 to 1.1 million last year.

At the first citizenship ceremonies of 2008 in St. Paul on Wednesday, immigrants said it wasn't just economic opportunity driving their applications. They also want to vote. Within 15 minutes of singing "The Star Spangled Banner," the vast majority had filled out voter-registration cards.

"I've been very interested in politics, and the right to vote is important to me," said Marat Demyanuk, a Belarus native who marvels at the American system of democracy.

Demyanuk, of Plymouth, said he has closely followed the presidential vote in Iowa and New Hampshire -- even sneaking glimpses of TV news at the gym where he works as a personal trainer. "Now I'm ready to vote," he said.

The mood is changing

Augustin Pina, a Mexican worker from Richfield who also became a citizen Wednesday, said he was motivated by voting as well as concerns over the shifting immigration climate.

"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 the Minnesota region last year, up from 4,600 in 2000. Workers at the Bloomington immigration office are scrambling to process the avalanche of citizenship applications as quickly as possible, Cabrera said. That office serves Minnesota, North Dakota, South Dakota and western Wisconsin.

By law, citizenship applications are supposed to be processed within 120 days, but that hasn't happened in years, Cabrera said. It takes an average of seven months for a citizenship application to be processed in Minnesota. But the delay can be longer, especially if FBI security checks have to be performed.

To try to prevent further backlogs, Immigration Services soon will announce a plan to speed up the work pace at regional offices, Cabrera said. Minnesota's office will be filling 18 staff positions to reach its authorized level of 62, and may add more staff, she said.

Help is on the way

"There's definitely going to be more hiring, people working different shifts, and possibly bringing in some people who have retired," Cabrera said. "We also may be opening some offices nights and weekends."

She said the last time there was such an avalanche of citizenship applications was the late 1980s, when many immigrants became eligible for an amnesty program.

Last year's spike reflects a hefty increase in fees to process naturalization papers, immigrant leaders said. The fee jumped from $400 to $675, effective July 30. Immigration offices were swamped with applications before that deadline, Cabrera said.

Meanwhile, federal judges in Minnesota are gearing up for a busy year. So far, 55 naturalization ceremonies are scheduled for this year, compared with 37 performed last year.

For some immigrants, the boom in applications has aggravated their already-long waits for citizenship approval. Nuradin Ahmed of St. Paul applied for citizenship in December 2005. He said he has contacted immigration officials countless times, including hiring an attorney to speed up the process. But "they just say they don't have any more information,'' he said.

Fiancée is tired of waiting

"When I passed the citizenship test, they gave me a paper that said I should be able to become a citizen in 120 days," said Ahmed, who emigrated to Minnesota from Ethiopia in 2001. "I was planning to go home and get married. It's almost three years now. She's tired of waiting."

The long waits have prompted many lawsuits against Immigration Services, said 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.

Cabrera said her agency is aware of the problem, which often occurs with immigrants whose names are similar to individuals on an FBI list of potential terrorists.

For the new Americans, it's no surprise that citizenship applications are soaring.

"America is America," said Asad Azmi, a St. Paul banker from India. "Employment is good. The living standard is better than anywhere. I love this country."

Jean Hopfensperger * 651-298-1553