A coalition of groups supporting immigrants has recruited teams of volunteers to help push programs they hope will add thousands of new U.S. citizens to the voter rolls in several states in time for the November presidential election.
The national push comes after Democratic President Barack Obama has failed to deliver on promised immigration reforms in his first years in office and his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, adopted harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration to win support from conservatives while campaigning for the GOP nomination.
The Department of Homeland Security says an estimated 12.6 million people were holding so-called green cards given to legal permanent U.S. residents in 2010, including 8.1 million people who already qualify for naturalization but have not applied for citizenship. Latinos, considered a Democratic-leaning constituency, account for the largest immigrant community.
Immigrants and other minority voters helped Obama to a comfortable win over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.
“The fastest growing segment of the American electorate is the Latino vote, and within Latinos, we are seeing very rapid growth of immigrant voters,” said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington. “In the 2012 election there is no doubt that the immigrant community will be incredibly relevant.”
The “Become a Citizen Now!” campaign began in March, hoping to help 5,000 immigrants complete the daunting application process to become citizens and register to vote. It is targeting foreign-born residents who have been in the country long enough to qualify for naturalization in Massachusetts, New York, California, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Tennessee, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. Nearly 500 citizenship applications have been completed so far.
Yenith Berrio, a 40-year-old Colombian citizen who has spent half of her life living in the United States, is preparing for her naturalization test and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen and registered voter.
The Boston resident said the right to vote allows her to participate in a process that affects her and her family. She said the U.S. is a better place for her and her children who “are happier right here and could get much better education here.”
It typically takes just over five months to acquire citizenship.
“Those immigrants that apply for their citizenship before the end of April are likely to be able to vote in this election in November,” said Josh Hoyt, a co-chair of the National Partnership for New Americans.