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The New Immigrant Vote
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The New Immigrant Vote

Before major elections, there is typically an increase in the number of naturalization applications, and this year is no exception. Naturalization applications are up 15 percent from last year. In a story for the Fronteras Radio Network, Jude Joffe-Block explored the potential impact of the new immigrant voters.

In the last presidential race, immigrant voters gave Barack Obama a boost. So even though they comprise a small share of the electorate, how they vote can make a difference in swing states like Nevada. Immigrants also represent a huge untapped segment of potential voters. More than 8 million legal permanent residents nationwide who are eligible to apply for citizenship.

An analysis by the Center for American Progress shows that legal permanent residents who are eligible to naturalize, along with unregistered Latino citizens of voting age, could have the potential to swing elections in Texas, Arizona, California, Nevada, New Mexico, Florida and Georgia.

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Jude’s Story Behind the Story

There are currently some eight million legal permanent residents who are eligible to become U.S. citizens. These immigrants could make a big impact in many political districts if they were to naturalize and vote.

Every election year there is usually a bump in the number of immigrants who choose to naturalize, since that year they can exercise the right to vote. My story examined the number of immigrants naturalizing this year, how this year’s citizenship applications compare to 2008 (which was a record year for naturalizations), and the reasons why more immigrants aren’t taking the step this year.

My story was a radio feature that aired on several public radio stations in the Southwest. A print version appeared on the Fronteras website, www.fronterasdesk.org. In addition, I helped produce an hour-long panel discussion about naturalization and obstacles to immigrants becoming voting citizens on Nevada Public Radio.

I had a methodological research challenge with this story. I was trying to compare the number of naturalization applications in the lead up before the 2008 election, versus the number of applications in the lead up to this November’s election. It was tricky to compare, because the processing time has changed dramatically in the past few years. Now, USCIS can process a naturalization form in just five months to process a naturalization application, while in 2007 and 2008, it could have taken twice that or more, depending on the field office. For example: this year, it was widely believed that those wishing to naturalize and register to vote in November 2012 should submit their forms to USCIS no later than May 2012. In contrast, prospective new citizens attempting to vote in 2008 would have had to submit their naturalization forms earlier.

After consulting with a USCIS public information officer, I came up with the appropriate 12-month period to consider the “lead up” period before the 2008 and 2012 elections, respectively. I wound up calculating there was a 40 percent decrease in naturalization applications in the lead up to this election compared to the lead up to the last presidential election. (Though it should be noted that there is typically an election year bump in naturalization applications relative to non-election years, and this year was no different).

The IJJ fellowship conference was extremely helpful for narrowing in on this topic within the scope of naturalized citizens voting. I wound up shifting the emphasis of my story after discussing the topic with other fellows, advisors, and guest speakers who attended the conference. In fact, an audio interview that I recorded at the conference in Oklahoma with one of the invited speakers made it into the final story.

The talk show on Nevada Public Radio provided the opportunity to discuss this issue in depth with a panel of experts, as well as local listeners who called in with their own comments. One voting rights expert on the panel mentioned that many states aren’t doing enough to help new citizens learn what they need to do to become voters. In response, a caller called us to tell us his personal story of naturalizing in 2008 in Texas without receiving any information about how to register to vote, despite the fact that the deadline to register in that year’s election was just around the corner.

The panel also discussed what factors lead to ebbs and flows in the number of eligible immigrants who naturalize. One caller shared he was motivated to naturalize and vote after California voters passed a ballot initiative to deny state benefits to undocumented immigrants in 1994. He described his action as a backlash against the initiative, known as Prop. 187, and as an act of solidarity with other Latinos.

“And even though it didn’t affect me, because I was already a legal resident, I realized that other Latinos that were not in my position kind of needed people like me to defend them in a way,” the caller, Ron, said.

I encourage other journalists to continue following how naturalized citizens engage in U.S. elections. It is an undercovered topic that deserves much more reporting.

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