Number of Mexicans Gaining Citizenship Soars in 2007

Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, July 11, 2008

The number of Mexican-born immigrants who became U.S. citizens swelled by nearly 50% last year amid a massive campaign by Spanish-language media and immigrant advocacy groups to help eligible residents apply for citizenship, according to a government report released Thursday.

Despite Mexicans’ historically low rates of naturalization, 122,000 attained citizenship in 2007, up from 84,000 the previous year, with California and Texas posting the largest gains. Salvadorans and Guatemalans also showed significant increases at a time when the overall number of naturalizations declined by 6%.

At the same time, the number of citizenship applications filed doubled to 1.4 million last year, the report by the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics found.

The surge in naturalization of Mexicans, their largest year-to-year increase this decade, came amid pitched national debate over immigration reform. The report cited the campaign by Spanish-language media and community groups, along with a desire to apply before steep fee increases took effect, as two major reasons for the jump in naturalizations.

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The increase in Latinos with the power to vote could affect the political landscape in November, analysts said. Louis DiSipio, a UC Irvine political science professor, said one of the biggest impacts could be in Florida, a key battleground state that posted 54,500 new citizens last year. Although the ethnic Cuban population there has dominated the Latino political landscape and tended to vote Republican, he said, more of the newer immigrants are coming from South America and trending Democratic. For the first time this decade, more Latinos were registered as Democrats than Republicans, 35% to 33% as of this spring, according to Gold.

Beyond November, the swelling Latino numbers nationwide will continue to recast the political landscape for local elections, DiSipio said. He said that growing Latino naturalizations in the late 1990s, thanks to a 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants, helped California Democrats gain an 800,000-plus voter edge and that similar gains could occur with the newest increase.

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Erica L. Bernal-Martinez, senior director of civic engagement for the association of Latino officials, said grass-roots organizations planned to continue their push to encourage naturalizations among the estimated 4 million to 5 million eligible Latinos. Mexicans have historically had low rates of naturalization—35% compared with 59% for all immigrants—but that appears to be changing as media and community organizations pour unprecedented resources and energy into their civic engagement campaigns, Bernal-Martinez and Gold said.

More than 400 community organizations across the country, along with major Spanish-language media, have joined forces in a “Ya Es Hora” (It’s Time) campaign to help eligible voters become citizens and register to vote. The campaign plans to hold naturalization workshops in 10 cities Saturday.

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The new report found that California posted the largest gains in new citizens in 2007, from 153,000 the year before to 182,000; followed by Texas, from 38,000 to 53,000; and Illinois, from 30,000 to 39,000.

After Mexico, the largest number of new citizens came from India, the Philippines, China, Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, South Korea and El Salvador.

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