Teresa Watanabe, Los Angeles Times, May 11, 2009
More than 1 million immigrants became U.S. citizens last year, the largest surge in history, hastening the ethnic transformation of California’s political landscape with more Latinos and Asians now eligible to vote.
Leading the wave, California’s 300,000 new citizens accounted for nearly one-third of the nation’s total and represented a near-doubling over 2006, according to a recent report by the U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics. Florida recorded the second-largest group of new citizens, and Texas claimed the fastest growth.
Mexicans, who have traditionally registered low rates of naturalization, represented the largest group, with nearly one-fourth of the total. They were followed by Indians, Filipinos, Chinese, Cubans and Vietnamese.
The new citizens are reshaping California’s electorate and are likely to reorder the state’s policy priorities, some political analysts predict. Several polls show that Latinos and Asians are more supportive than whites of public investments and broad services, even if they require higher taxes.
Most Latinos, for instance, support all five budget propositions on the May ballot while most whites oppose them, according to recent polls by the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. Although viewed as largely conservative, most Asian Americans supported a 2004 measure requiring large businesses to provide health insurance to employees, even as it failed at the ballot box, according to an analysis by the Asian Pacific American Legal Center in Los Angeles.
Nationally, nonwhite voters overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama’s presidential candidacy, while most whites voted for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a recent study by the Pew Research Center showed. And there were more nonwhite voters last year–Latino registered voters increased by 3 million compared with 2004, said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voting Registration Education Project in Los Angeles.
The surge in new citizens will accelerate by several years the California electorate’s shift from majority white to nonwhite, according to Dowell Myers, a USC demographer. Although that shift won’t be completed until 2026, Myers and others said, Latinos, Asians and African Americans are already joining with progressive whites to elect ethnically diverse candidates.
The path to the 1-million mark was paved by an organized collaboration among community activists, the Spanish-language media and government. Univision TV network and La Opinion newspaper, in particular, had many stories about the importance of citizenship and demystified the application process, said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund in Los Angeles.
U.S. immigration officials worked weekends to distribute information, develop TV scripts and provide an official to conduct an on-air mock citizenship interview, Vargas said. Jane Arellano, district director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ seven-county area covering Southern California, was the movement’s “unsung hero,” he said.
Meanwhile, the region’s adult and community colleges joined the effort, expanding English and civics classes to help prepare immigrants for their citizenship test. The Los Angeles Unified School District’s adult education division nearly doubled the number of citizenship classes last year over the previous year, officials said.
One of those new Latino voters was Joanuen Llamas, a 26-year-old Mexico native and Los Angeles homemaker who legally immigrated here in 1998. She was inspired to become a citizen in March 2008 after joining the massive immigrant rights marches of recent years and took to heart their slogan, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
But Gonzalez said Latinos and other immigrants still had far to go, noting that 8 million of them have not yet claimed citizenship although they are eligible. “The test is going forward,” he said.
Indeed, new citizenship applications have already dropped significantly. In the Southern California district, for instance, applications plunged to 58,433 last year from 253,666 the previous year, U.S. immigration statistics show.
Most experts say that a 69% increase in application fees to $675 was one reason for the steep decline. The Obama administration is proposing $206 million in funding for immigration services that could help reduce the fee by about $50, and activists are hoping for more, said Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund. New citizen Alfonso Vergara is one product of the massive citizenship campaign effort. A Mexico native and pharmaceutical technician, the 31-year-old said he had postponed applying for citizenship for years because the process seemed too time-consuming.