Paper Jam May Curb Latino Vote

Miriam Jordan, Wall Street Journal, January 18, 2008

Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics who responded to a massive campaign to seek citizenship and vote in 2008 have created a backlog of applications that the government has indicated it can’t process before the election, undercutting the voting power of Latinos.

Univision, the largest Spanish-language network in the U.S., launched the campaign last year along with Spanish-language newspapers and Latino grass-roots groups. With the slogan, “Ya Es Hora! Ciudadania!” (It’s About Time! Citizenship!), the campaign was integrated into local newscasts and aired in public-service announcements throughout the day in cities across the country.

Nearly 1.2 million green-card holders, the vast majority Latino, applied to become naturalized citizens in 2007, surpassing the campaign’s target of one million. All told, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 1.4 million applications for naturalization in the fiscal year ended October 2007, nearly double the volume received for the previous fiscal year. In June and July alone, the volume of applications jumped 360% relative to the same months in 2006.

Many applicants were motivated by a desire to participate in the political process amid a rancorous national debate over immigration. Anticipation of a fee increase for the naturalization application, to $675 from $400, was also a factor. But the immigration agency hadn’t anticipated the “avalanche” of applications that ensued, according to a USCIS spokesman. Legal residents who applied midyear are likely to wait 18 months before their forms are processed; the average processing time is normally six months. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The processing jam stands to damp the electoral potential of Hispanics, a bloc that has become more politically active, as seen two years ago at massive street protests over immigration legislation. Hispanics represent a crucial constituency in states such as Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

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Latino groups and unions involved in the citizenship drive say they first notified the government of their plans to encourage increased Hispanic citizenship in November 2006. More recently, the advocacy groups have urged the government to expedite processing to ensure that all qualified applicants who filed last year are sworn in as U.S. citizens by July 4.

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Nearly nine million green-card holders, or legal permanent residents, are eligible to become U.S. citizens. About 55% are immigrants of Latin American origin. A desire to have a greater say in the debate over immigrants’ rights is likely to push more Latinos to participate in this election. “Latino newcomers see naturalization as a critical step toward making their voices heard in our national debate on immigration,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, NALEO, in his testimony yesterday.

In response, a USCIS spokesman later said “the agency is committed to ensuring fair and professional service to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who seek our services every month.”

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There were 9.3 million Hispanics registered to vote in the last presidential election. NALEO projects that, as of this year’s general election, there will be at least 11.3 million registered. It expects at least 9.2 million will cast ballots, up from 7.6 million in 2004, due to the mobilizing impact of the immigration debate, the vigorous efforts by parties and candidates to reach Latinos, and the initiatives of non-partisan groups to energize Latino voters.

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