New U.S. Citizens Could Sway Vote

New U.S. citizens could sway vote
Advocates fear delays in approval process

January 20, 2008

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Applications for U.S. citizenship have almost doubled in one year, fueled by aggressive organizing by Latino activists and a political year marked by tough talk about immigration.

Political strategists are gauging how an increase in new citizens might affect the November presidential election, especially in swing states such as Nevada and Arizona, where a relative few votes cast by new citizens could make a difference.

Much depends on whether the government's pace for processing applications slows significantly, leaving many would-be citizens unqualified to vote in November.

Voting-rights advocates complain the delay would be unfair in light of the July 30 fee increases that were to help fund the timely processing of applications.

At last count, between October 2006 and October 2007, more than 1.4 million applications rolled into U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the division of Homeland Security that screens and tests applicants. Citizenship Services predicts that immigrants who have filed applications since June 2007 will have to wait 16 to 18 months for approval. The average wait time had been seven months.

The surge, records show, is one of the largest annual increases in applications during the last 100 years.

“People are getting fed up because of the politics and the rhetoric,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union.

Medina's immigrant-heavy union joined with Spanish-language news media and 400 other groups a year ago to form “Ya es Hora,” Spanish for “It's Time,” a nationwide citizenship drive.

The last time so many citizenship petitions were filed was in 1997, when many Latinos felt that politicians, notably former California Gov. Pete Wilson, were targeting illegal immigrants for personal political gain. The Democratic Party said it gained support among new-citizen voters as a result, and some party outreach workers hope to benefit again.

Citizenship Services is not ready to release state-by-state data on this latest group of citizenship applicants, said spokeswoman Sharon Rummery. But California, where an increase in Latino voters has already changed the political landscape, will certainly lead.

More than 201,000 of about 720,000 citizens naturalized in 2006 were California residents.

Labor and voting-rights advocates said they're bracing for a possible fight to make sure citizenship processing keeps on pace.

Because of the volume of applications, Citizenship Services is scrambling to hire 1,500 workers using money generated through higher fees, Rummery said.

New staff, she said, has to be trained before applications can be processed as quickly as they had been.

Laura Lopez, 40, applied for citizenship one year ago and is still waiting to be called to her exam. The Sacramento woman has been a legal resident since 1987, after receiving amnesty as a young farmworker during President Ronald Reagan's administration.

She feels confident enough about her English and civics knowledge to pass the test. She wants to vote, she said, in part because she's smarting over accusations she's heard directed at illegal immigrants and immigrants.

“Everybody in my citizenship class has already been tested and sworn in,” she added. “Nobody will tell me why I haven't been called yet.”

Lopez has returned to civics classes, to review what she learned so she won't forget it.

Dharsy Gaitan, 23, who works in the medical records section of the Sacramento County Sheriff's Department, came from Nicaragua as a child. She filed for citizenship in June, breezed through her test in December and was sworn in. She hasn't registered to vote yet, she said, but she will.

She has sensed so much resentment toward immigrants in general, she said, that she has begun to fear the government might decide “legal immigrants can't be here anymore, either.”

Lopez said she constantly reminds family and friends who can vote to do so.

“I have my preferences as far as candidates go,” she said. But she doesn't want to reveal them yet. “First,” she said, “I must become a citizen.”