The number of aliens applying for citizenship and legal resident status has increased steadily for the past year.

And so has the number of alien criminals who have been apprehended and deported."If people are eligible for immigration benefits, we want them to have them," said Meryl E. Rogers, officer in charge of the Immigration and Naturalization Service's Salt Lake office, which covers all of Utah. "If they're committing crimes and creating a public safety problem, we want them out."

The local INS office processed more than 3,600 citizenship and permanent legal resident applications during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, he said. That was a 35 percent increase over the year before. And the number of exams for naturalization and permanent residency stayed high in October, as well.

Rogers credits intensive outreach work by his staff to encourage people who are qualified for benefits to apply. And he believes there may be a slight fear factor, too:

"There's some speculation that because last spring Congress began talking about cutting off certain benefits to illegal aliens, a lot of people may have come in to avoid these cutoffs."

Aliens gain legal status in several ways. The most common is on the basis of a family relationship to a U.S. citizen or permanent resident. Some attain status because they've had a job offer based on a "needed skill." And others apply for and get legal status on a claim to asylum or refugee status, Rogers said.Applicants must prove they are not excludable because of a criminal record or on other grounds.

The number of criminals deported by the Utah office last year increased 10 percent, to 750. And

Rogers said the numbers were higher in October.

"Any type of drug offense, even simple possession, will usually (lead to deportation)," said Rogers. "For other crimes, it generally has to be felonies."

Street level drug activity is a growing problem among illegal aliens in the Salt Lake area, Rogers said. The Salt Lake City Police Department and INS have staged two large-scale joint raids, resulting in the deportation of 400 illegal aliens.

His office has hired two new special agents to arrest people in the U.S. illegally. They also hired a new detention officer to guard people in custody and carry out deportation.

But he admits that a lot of criminal activity "falls through the cracks just because we don't have the personnel to handle it or the deportation budget has run low."