Activists Rush to Sign Up New Immigrant Voters
Can naturalized citizens tip the balance?
Juan Carlos Jimenez had already lived legally in the United States for nearly 40 years when he became a citizen in October, at 44. He joined hundreds of other immigrants at a New York courthouse to take his oath.
“It’s the only reason I became a citizen — to vote in this election,” said Jimenez, who was born in Colombia.
The Iraq war and the foundering economy made him want to vote for the first time.
“There’s just too much at stake now,” he said.
Issues like the war, the economy, and failed immigration reform are expected to drive many first-time immigrant voters like Jimenez to the polls this year, in greater numbers than before.
“They feel a real vested interest in what is happening with this election, and they feel quite motivated to participate in the political process,” said Launce Rake, 45, communications director for the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada. PLAN, a non-partisan organization focused on social justice, has registered about 2,700 new immigrant voters in Nevada over the past year.
While there are no national statistics on the number of first-time immigrant voters, many immigrant groups agree that the turnout will rise, and argue that it could affect the outcome of the election in certain states.
“The energy is definitely one of great excitement,” said Chris Chung, 26, program associate for YKASEC – Empowering the Korean Community, a non-partisan organization in New York that has registered over 26,000 immigrant voters since 2004. “They are ready to vote.”
Chung, who often attends citizenship ceremonies to hand out voter registration forms, said it was important for immigrants to participate.
“If they don’t vote, then their voice isn’t heard,” he said.
Juan Roman, 42, an immigrant from El Salvador who became a citizen earlier this year, tells his friends something similar.
“OK, you don’t want to vote, you don’t register to vote, don’t complain, don’t complain,” said Roman, a Nevada resident who volunteers with PLAN. Roman, who lived in the United States for about 20 years before becoming naturalized, said he was eager to make a difference by casting his vote.
“Now I have a choice, I have the chance,” he said.
First-time Hispanic voters like Roman could be a deciding factor in swing states like Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Colorado, where Hispanics make up a significant percentage of the electorate, said Richard Fry, 49, a senior research associate for the Washington, DC-based Pew Hispanic Center.
Fry, co-author of the report “Hispanics and the 2008 Election: A Swing Vote?” said 9 percent of Latinos would be eligible to vote in the 2008 election, but that if past turnout trends persist, only 6.5 percent will make it to the polls. A surge in Hispanic voter registration since 2004 could increase that, although some organizations noted that enthusiasm over high voter turnout among immigrants in prior elections had failed to translate into votes.
“Especially among Latino voters, the participation and level of registration has increased,” said Andrew Sullivan, 26, civic engagement coordinator for New Immigrant Community Empowerment, a New York non-profit focused on advocacy for new immigrants.
In Colorado, Amber Tafoya, 30, a public policy coordinator for the Colorado Immigrants Rights Coalition, also anticipated a large Latino turnout in her state.
“I think disproportionately, because there are more Latino immigrants, we’re going to have more Latinos coming out,” she said.
But she added that she’d seen immigrants of various nationalities registering.
John Weingart, director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, suggested that every voting group was likely to see higher turnout, reflecting greater all-around interest in this election.
“There are more people who think this election makes a difference, and who have a preference among the two candidates,” he said.
New immigrant voters could affect the outcome of tight races, he said.
“Particularly if the race is close, first-time immigrants may be a decisive factor, we’ll have to see,” he said.
Michelle Mittelstadt, 46, director of communications for the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank that analyzes the movement of people worldwide, noted that many people thought the immigrant vote would be unleashed during the 2006 mid-term congressional elections, when immigration reform was a big issue. But the turnout was lower than anticipated.
“In prior election cycles there have also been suggestions that immigrant voters would turnout in significantly greater numbers than they have in the past,” she said. “The proof will be on Election Day, on whether or not this new voting bloc has realized its potential.”
Naturalized citizens register to vote.
Photo Courtesy of the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada
The Korean-American civic group YKASEC says it has registered more than 26,000 people to vote since 2004.
Photo courtesy of YKASEC
As the election nears, the Korean-American civic group YKASEC kicks into high gear.
Photo courtesy of YKASEC