Posted on April 7, 2020

Naturalized Citizens Could Be Critical in This Fall’s Election

Michael Macagnone and Tanvi Misra, Roll Call, April 2, 2020

At her naturalization ceremony, Blanca Inhof, a 49-year-old woman from West Lawn, Pa., could not hold back her tears.

“I have been waiting for this moment for 25 years. I always wanted to become a citizen, but … we couldn’t get the money together,” says Inhof, who works as a translator for her school district.  {snip}

After her mother passed away 25-or-so years ago, Blanca came to the United States from Mexico on a 10-year visa. She considers it a “miracle” that she was able to immigrate legally in search of a new beginning, a better life. {snip}

Along one wall inside the ceremony room, volunteers waited with voter registrations forms, and Blanca filled one out. While it was not the determining factor, the 2020 election contributed to Blanca’s naturalization decision. Having her citizenship pending any longer would have added a layer of precarity to her family’s life.

“We don’t trust him — it’s plain and simple — we don’t trust him,” David Inhof says, referring to President Donald Trump. “He’s kicked legal residents out and put kids in cages.”

The continual crop of new citizens like Blanca Inhof in Pennsylvania and across the country represents a “sleeping political giant,” says Diego Iniguez-Lopez, policy and campaign manager at the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations working to naturalize immigrants and register them to vote.

Naturalizations tend to spike in an election year and drop right after. If fiscal 2020 follows a similar rise in naturalization rates as fiscal 2016, unhindered by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, then this year alone may see around 860,000 naturalized citizens, according to NPNA’s analysis of government data. Between the last presidential election and the upcoming one in November, there may be an estimated 3.1 million naturalizations, many distributed across key battleground states. And there may be significant political muscle in those votes.

Immigration is a key concern for the Inhofs because of how it affects Blanca. But the couple cares about trade tariffs, unemployment, education and other issues that shape their lives. Together, these will inform their decision come November.


As the presidential primary season swings into high gear, immigrant voters may play a consequential role: Over 23 million U.S. citizens who were born abroad will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, according to a Pew Research Center analysis from February. As 10 percent of the overall electorate, that would be a record high. Nearly half of these voters live in states with Democratic primaries or caucuses that took place by March 3, Super Tuesday.

In fact, the number of new citizens since the last election alone exceeds Trump’s margin of victory in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan combined, and has made up substantial portions of the growth in each state’s eligible voters since 2016. In other states, like Texas, they may be critical to local and state elections, or may propel new candidates to congressional seats. Like Blanca Inhof, these potential new voters bring with them rich stories about where they came from, and diverse opinions about where they would like to take their new country next, and have a range of issues they care about.


{snip} According to Pew, naturalized Hispanic and Asian voters — two of the biggest immigrant groups — tend to turn out at higher rates than their native-born counterparts from the same groups.


Blanca Inhof gained citizenship along with around 70 other people — many also hailing from Pennsylvania but some from as far as Delaware — that February afternoon.

The unassuming U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office that hosted the ceremony, tucked away in a West Philly corner, swore in 140 citizens just that day. That office conducts between four and six ceremonies a week, making about 10,000 new citizens a year.

According to NPNA’s tally of government data, an estimated 80,379 adults have been naturalized in Pennsylvania since 2017. That’s almost double the margin of Trump’s victory there a year earlier, when he won by 44,292 votes.


According to census data, Pennsylvania gained about 100,000 naturalized citizens between 2010 and 2018. The state is now roughly 4 percent naturalized citizens, up from less than 3 percent in 2010.

That growth, coupled with new congressional maps, have factored in flipping several Philadelphia-area seats in recent elections. Blanca, for instance, lives in the 6th Congressional District represented by first-term Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan. Diversifying suburbs may play a key factor in some of the most competitive congressional seats in the country, such as Pennsylvania’s 1st District held by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican.


Naturalized voters will be roughly the same as the size of the Generation Z bloc of eligible voters — people born after 1996. For the first time in a presidential election, both may be larger than the so-called “Silent Generation” born before 1946, according to Pew. The growth in these potential voters — naturalized citizens who are at least 18 years of age — has increased by 93 percent since 2000.


The 2008 election also saw a massive spike in newAmericans, largely the result of naturalization campaigns ahead of the presidential election and a rush to get applications in before a hike in naturalization fees a year earlier, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

But the fee hike and growing application backlog under the Obama administration blunted the spikes the next two elections.


Another reason is what naturalization advocates call the administration’s “second wall” — a slate of proposals that make naturalization an intimidating and prohibitively expensive prospect. The current administration’s proposal to dramatically increase naturalization fees by roughly 83 percent, in particular, is pushing people to take their final steps towards citizenship, lest they can no longer afford to do so in the future.


While the gap between voting rates of naturalized versus native-born citizens has narrowed over time, it’s still significant. According to the Census Bureau, about 68 percent of native-born Americans registered to vote in 2018, about 10 percentage points lower than the registration rate for naturalized citizens. Similarly, around 54 percent of native-born citizens voted that year, whereas the percentage for naturalized Americans was 46 percent.

Structural barriers can keep people in lower income brackets from voting and many immigrants may face the same issues — digital divides, access to information about voting and candidates in the right language, limited access to polling places, shorter voting hours and voter ID laws. But increases in income, education and voting age population means that “immigrant voting will be increasingly relevant to electoral outcomes in years to come,” the Census Bureau predicted in 2016. Indeed, naturalized citizens made up 8 percent of the ballots cast in the 2018 midterm elections — twice their share compared to 1996.


“I think it is a systemic issue of not having been engaged before,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat who often speaks about being one of the few naturalized citizens in Congress. {snip}


Jayapal points to work that her Democratic colleague, Rep. Grace Meng of New York, conducts in state suburbs to turn out new voters.

Meng, a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, says outreach to new citizens requires much of the same in-person effort needed for other voter groups. Her Queens district includes more than 200,000 naturalized citizens, among the most in the country.

In 2018, Meng also went to Asian fish markets and grocery stores in Nevada with now-Sen. Jacky Rosen in her race to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller. That sort of literal retail politics can help build a relationship with a community — which Meng attributes to part of Rosen’s 50,000-vote victory over Heller.


Meng and other members of CAPAC have reached out to the growing Asian American communities in the Texas suburbs, for instance.

According to an NPNA estimate of government naturalization data, around 96,161 people may naturalize by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2020. Since 2017, total naturalizations are estimated at 310,732.

Democrats in Texas hope to capitalize on that growth. Luke Warford, the state party’s director of voter expansion, says the state’s growing diversity means the 2020 electorate will be friendlier to Democrats trying to flip the state legislature and add to the party’s House majority in Congress.

“The urban areas have already flipped blue, and as that diversity spreads out into the suburbs, the suburbs start to become more diverse as well,” Warford says. “The competitive districts are now just outside urban areas rather than in the downtown.”

The 22nd District, which includes Houston suburbs such as Sugar Land, contains key South Asian immigrant communities. It is currently represented by retiring Republican Rep. Pete Olson.

Asian American residents are one of the dominant immigrant groups in the region, and a target for national Democrats like Meng and the ASPIRE PAC, which promotes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders running for Congress. In 2018, this coalition helped bring Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni, an Indian American candidate and former adviser to New York Democratic Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, within 5 percentage points of unseating Olson.


Maria Alegria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, often stakes out shopping malls in Jamaican and Haitian locales and coordinates with churches and workers’ unions. She and her colleagues seek out immigrants where they live and work and help put them on the path to citizenship.


Come November, naturalized citizens may have their biggest impact in her state, and in South Florida in particular. The Miami-Dade County area has three of the five congressional districts most populated by naturalized citizens. According to Census Bureau data, districts 25, 26 and 27 each had more than 200,000 naturalized citizens in 2018, when two of those districts flipped Democratic.

In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by 112,911 votes. According to NPNA, Florida will have recorded an estimated 363,761 naturalizations since 2017 by the end of the year, with more than 103,000 in 2020 so far.

While South Florida has long been a hub for Cuban Americans, it increasingly includes other nationalities, such as Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans and Venezuelans. How these subgroups vote depends on several factors — including race, age, socio-economic status and religious background.

State voter data shows that the three Florida counties with the largest number of naturalized citizens — and some of the greatest population growth since the 2016 election — added about 70,000 registered voters since 2016. Most of the new voters registered in the Democratic Party or as unaffiliated.