Hispanic activists coming up short in push for voters
Immigrant rights advocates vowed to make this the year of the anti-Donald Trump citizenship surge, hoping to sign up 1 million new arrivals eager to send a message rejecting the Republican Party’s presidential candidate — but they are falling short, with naturalization rates only slightly higher than four years ago.
There is little question that Mr. Trump’s outsized rhetoric has angered Hispanic activists overall and Mexican immigrants in particular. But applications for citizenship are up just 6.6 percent compared with the same period in 2012, according to data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and approvals are down slightly.
Groups say the numbers don’t jibe with the intensity they detect at citizenship workshops, and they hope the numbers will end up higher.
“I certainly don’t have a crystal ball, but what we’ve seen on the ground is that there’s strong anecdotal evidence that suggests people are turning out in bigger numbers this year,” said Tara Raghuveer, deputy director at the National Partnership for New Americans, which is leading a push for naturalizations.
“We saw unprecedented turnout at our events across the country. … We feel that the effect of the political climate is real and will have real effects on the naturalization numbers,” she said.
Nearly 9 million people in the U.S. are eligible for citizenship but haven’t applied, providing a deep bench for the activists to target.
Of those eligible, about one-third are Mexican — a pool that activists said are particularly enraged at Mr. Trump.
The Republican kicked off his presidential campaign last June by saying Mexico sends rapists and other bad elements of its society to the U.S.
Mr. Trump has also vowed to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and force the Mexican government to pay for it. More recently, he has called a U.S. judge hearing a case on Trump University biased because of the judge’s Mexican heritage — a claim that even fellow Republicans have deemed racist.
Hispanic rights groups insisted that voters will punish Mr. Trump for his attacks, and anecdotes abound of Hispanic voters saying they are eager to send a message.
But the latest controversy may not motivate immigrants to become citizens. USCIS said it generally takes at least five months to process a citizenship application, and the presidential election is less than five months away.
April and May figures have not been released, but reports from the first three months of the year show 252,254 citizenship applications and 177,713 USCIS approvals. During the same period in 2012, the totals were 238,065 applications and 179,548 approvals.
To become a citizen, an immigrant usually has to be a legal permanent resident for five years and must pass the citizenship test. There are exceptions to the wait for those who serve in the military and exceptions to the citizenship requirements based on age.
Groups haven’t given up hope of a bigger surge from April and May.
“We’re going to need to see what happens when it’s all over. We’re keeping our eye on it,” said Rosalind Gold, senior director of policy, research and advocacy at the NALEO Educational Fund, which supports Hispanic causes.
The record year for new citizens was 2008, when 1,046,539 people took the oath. In 2012, the last presidential election year, 757,434 people were sworn in as new Americans.
The 2008 surge was largely the result of a rush to beat a spike in the application fee. A smaller increase is pending, which could help boost numbers this year.
The Obama administration is trying to ease the process. About one-third of those eligible to become citizens would qualify for a fee waiver, and the administration has told activists that it is moving personnel in an effort to process applications quickly.
Once the immigrants become citizens, it will be up to campaigns and activists to register them to vote and get them, as well as Hispanics born in the U.S., to turn out on Election Day.
Hispanics traditionally vote at far lower rates than other groups, but newly naturalized Hispanics turn out in higher percentages than those born in the U.S., Ms. Gold said.
In the key battleground state of Florida, just 60.6 percent of non-Hispanic citizens voted in 2012, but 68.7 percent of naturalized Hispanics turned out.
“We are going to be watching how the candidates reach Latinos, work to engage Latinos,” Ms. Gold said. “I think we’re also going to be looking at that as the election gets closer, whether some of the momentum that’s built up in the primaries sustains itself through the general election.”