September 10, 2004

Rising Power of the Immigrant Vote

By Carolina Gonzalez

With the number of Hispanic, Asian and immigrant voters growing across the United States, those who choreographed the public face of the Republican National Convention worked hard to shed the party’s image as a bastion of white, conservative America. For the first time ever, the convention featured daily press briefings in Spanish and Spanish translation of all the convention proceedings on its website.

Both political parties are reaching out as never before to attract immigrant voters, especially since so many of them live in states where the margins of this year’s presidential election are expected to be close. Immigrants and immigrant organizations welcome the focus on their potential political power.

Since 9/11, Romeo Garcia of the Pilipino Bayanihan Resource Center in Daly City, California, has worked to help scores of Pilipino airport screeners laid off after policy changes made the immigrant workers ineligible for the work. But getting them new jobs is not enough, said Garcia. “We realized that one of the keys to addressing our needs is to increase civic participation.”

That is why the Pilipino Bayanihan Resource Center and scores of organizations around the country that work with immigrants have this year turned attention, and a significant portion of their resources, to getting more immigrants to vote if they are eligible, and be otherwise involved with election campaigns if they are not. In New York City, the New York Immigration Coalition is working with a dozen community groups to educate and mobilize at least 100,000 immigrant voters for the 2004 elections and beyond. The NYIC’s New Citizen Voter Registration Project has registered more than 224,000 new citizens to vote over the past eight years by, among other things, targeting newly naturalized immigrants at swearing-in ceremonies, just as they become eligible to vote.

The surge in the number of immigrants applying for citizenship – between October 2003 and May 2004, almost half a million immigrants nationally applied for citizenship, 32% more than in the same period the previous year – has not yet translated into equivalent power in the voting booth. “After they [immigrants] become citizens, they are faced with many institutional barriers that keep them from going to the polls” said Larisa Casillas, a coordinator of an immigrant voter mobilization project at the Northern California Citizenship Project in San Francisco. This year, the NCCP is working with organizations throughout the state to get more naturalized immigrants registered and to the polls, not just in this year’s presidential election, but in future municipal and state elections.

The obstacles to overcome are several. According to Census figures, only four of every ten foreign-born people in the U.S. are naturalized citizens. And with a backlog of hundreds of thousands of citizenship applications – the average wait is now two years – even those who want to cast their vote are unable to. Getting access to informational material in other languages is hard. It is also sometimes difficult to bridge some cultural differences. “A lot of immigrants are wary of anything that has to do with the government,” said Garcia. “And we also have to deal with a generation gap. A lot of our outreach workers are young, college-age, and we’re dealing with a lot of seniors, and we have to be careful to not make it seem like we’re preaching to our elders.”

But the payoff in the efforts is potentially great. Not only has the number of immigrants increased dramatically over the last decade, but also there has been an even greater increase in the population outside the traditional immigrant centers. In Illinois, the number of immigrants in Chicago grew by 34% between 1990 and 2000, but increased by 86% outside the city. The five states with the greatest increase in immigrant population since 1990 are North Carolina, Georgia, Nevada, Arkansas and Utah. And once those eligible to vote acquire the habit, they are stalwart in exercising their civic rights and duties. A report by the National Council of La Raza found that in the 2000 elections, 87% of registered foreign-born voters went to the polls, a greater proportion than whites, Blacks or U.S.-born Latinos. “It’s become very clear to us that if immigrant issues are going to be taken seriously, we have to speak to politicians in language they understand, and the language they understand is numbers of voters” said Joshua Hoyt of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in Chicago.

Carolina Gonzalez is a journalist living in Brooklyn who often writes on immigration, national politics and education.

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