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WAITING IN AMERICA; U.S. DRAGS ITS FEET WHILE 99-YEAR-OLD IMMIGRANT WALKS TALL.

Byline: Dennis McCarthy

If this government of ours doesn't hurry up and get off the dime soon, we're going to miss the chance to make one hell of a man a U.S. citizen.

His name is Rafael Gomez Gonzalez and he will be turning 100 in a couple of months, and he'd really like to get that citizenship test behind him before he turns 101.

But it's been 14 months since he got up one day at 6 a.m., and took three buses from his daughter's Chatsworth home to get to the federal building downtown so he could plop $95 on the counter for the opportunity to take the test to become a U.S. citizen.

The Immigration and Naturalization Service clerk took his money, gave him a receipt, and said the government would get back to him. That was Nov. 13, 1996.

Rafael, a native of Spain, is still waiting for the government to get back to him.

It's not so much that Rafael's worried about the Grim Reaper getting to him before the INS does. No, he's more concerned about forgetting all the citizenship test material he's been memorizing every day for the past 15 months on his long study walks - cramming little slips of paper with the answers on them in his pockets.

That's a long time to study for one test, and to be honest about it, Rafael's getting a little sick and tired of U.S. History 101, but he can't quit now.

``He's worried about forgetting all this stuff if he stops studying,'' says his daughter, Rosario Gamez, who owns Mi Escuelita Nursery School in Reseda. ``If he doesn't forget it, he says he'll be the best student this country ever had taking that test.''

Her father nods and walks outside the Saticoy Street nursery school at noon Thursday to catch the first of two buses he takes a couple of times a week to get to Van Nuys for an In & Out Burger - the best hamburger in town, Rafael swears.

``I tell him he should be worried about his cholesterol, and he just laughs at me,'' Rosario says. ``Cholesterol is something my generation should be worried about, not his, he says.''

That's the kind of man Rafael is. Great sense of humor, still taking the bus to get around town on his own at 99, throwing his cholesterol count to the wind, and ready to argue at the drop of a hat about which branch of government really carries the weight in this country.

Just the kind of red-blooded American citizen we need more of.

So, why's our government dragging its feet making him a citizen?

It turns out there was no particular reason. Just another government foul-up.

``We did some background checking, and have determined that his application is at our Laguna Niguel INS center, and that his administrative file with his record of lawful entry into this country is also there, but in another section,'' said Jane Arellano, assistant district director of adjudication for the INS.

``We're going to put them together, and expedite them. Hopefully, Mr. Gonzalez will be taking his test in time for our February swearing-in ceremony, or March at the latest.

``It's a good thing you called,'' Arellano told me.

A good thing I called? Rosario Gamez has been calling for months and getting nowhere. I call one day, and her father gets expedited to the top of the list.

The system shouldn't work this way. But Rafael is in no mood to argue. He and Rosario were pretty happy Thursday when I gave them the news that the government was finally getting back to them.

Rafael can't wait to take the piece of paper that says he's a U.S. citizen and wave it in the face of the guy behind the counter at the Spanish Consulate in L.A.

You see, that's how this story began in the first place. One day back when Rafael was only 98, he stopped by the consulate to see about getting some money sent to his retired relatives still living in Spain, his birthplace in 1898.

Dissatisfied with getting only $100 in aid for his relatives, Rafael went home that night and told Rosario that he was going to become an American citizen because Spain was cheap.

A few days later, he walked into the federal building downtown and applied for U.S. citizenship - giving an INS clerk the $95 filing fee out of the $100 Spain had given him.

Then he took the other $5, and bought himself a nice, juicy In & Out Burger in Van Nuys, on Spain's dime.

I'm telling you this guy is going to make one hell of a U.S. citizen.

CAPTION(S):

Photo

PHOTO (color) Rafael Gomez Gonzalez, born in Spain nearly 100 years ago, continues his 14-month wait to take his United States citizenship test.

Myung J. Chun/Daily News
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 9, 1998
Words:821
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