Op-Ed

Immigrants applying for citizenship in high numbers may swing the November election

In the cacophony of the 2016 campaign, you may have missed this startling fact: From March to June, according to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, applications by lawful permanent residents to naturalize and become voting-eligible citizens were up 32% over the previous year. In the first quarter of 2016, they were up 28% and in the last half of 2015, they were up about 14%.

These are big jumps. From 2012 through 2014, the annual rate of growth in applications averaged only 2%.

Many of these recent naturalization applicants may make it through the process in time to vote in November. (Republicans are suggesting that speedily processing the application surge represents a security danger, but they may be more worried about an electoral danger; the process now, as always, takes at least five or six months.)  This late-breaking wave of Americans will join an already large group: Naturalized citizens are nearly 9% of all citizens who are old enough to vote in the U.S.

A new report from the Center for the Study of Immigration Integration, which I direct at USC, examines how big an impact naturalized citizen voters could have on the 2016 election.

Historically, naturalized citizens underperform the U.S.-born at translating eligibility into actual votes. Registration is one key: Once registered, immigrants’ voting rates are similar to native-born voting rates, and the longer someone has been a citizen the more likely he or she is to be registered and to vote. 

However, one part of this pattern may be changing. Research over the last few general election cycles shows that the gap in registration rates between recent and long-term naturalized citizens is closing. The probable reason is alluded to in news reports about the latest applicants: Anti-immigrant politicking has been motivating legal residents — especially Latinos — to become citizens, register and vote. 

“I want to vote so Donald Trump won’t win,” Hortensia Villegas, who came to the U.S. from Mexico, told a New York Times reporter early this year. She applied for citizenship in March, after nearly a decade as a legal resident. 

We have seen this phenomenon before: In California, in the late 1990s, after the state passed the anti-immigrant measure Proposition 187, foreign-born Latinos outvoted U.S.-born Latinos in the state’s elections and came close to meeting the participation rates for non-Latinos.

Are there enough newly minted citizens now to sway election results this year? Our study looked at the voting-age populations in all the states and the number of  citizens who naturalized between 2005 and 2015, a period of tumultuous immigration debates and protest that is likely to mean that these potential voters are sensitive to issues such as deportation, “amnesty” and border security.  

In some states that gained many new citizens, voting patterns probably won’t be much affected. California, New York and Texas, for example, added large shares of potential new immigrant voters between 2005 and 2015. These new citizens make up more than 7% of the voting age population in California, more than 6% in New York and nearly 4% in Texas. But these states are already so reliably blue (California and New York) or red (Texas) that those percentages aren’t crucial. 

However, in a few key battleground states, the newly naturalized voters we counted could make a difference. In Florida, they constitute more than 6% of the voting age population. In Nevada, that share is more than 5%; in Virginia, 4%; and in Arizona, 3%. The results in recent general elections in these states have been so close that these new citizens — if they are registered and turn out — could tip the tallies.  

Moreover, newly naturalized voters could have an effect long beyond any one election: In California, the generation of voters that acquired citizenship and punished the GOP for leading the fight for Proposition 187 are loyal Democrats. They are a big part of the reason California has been reliably blue for nearly 25 years. 

Immigration will always be a hotly debated topic in American politics as the nation tries to reconcile competing points of view about the effect of newcomers on our economy and society. However, politicians who demonize immigrants forget at their peril that newcomers naturalize, have memories and can vote. 

Manuel Pastor is a professor of sociology and director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at USC.

A previous version of this story said the annual growth rate in naturalization applications from 2012 through 2014 was 5%. It is 2%.
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