Surge in new Latino citizens

Times Staff Writer

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.

“Immigrants are tired of the tone and tenor of the immigration debate, which they feel is humiliating and does not recognize their contributions,” said Rosalind Gold of the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials’ Educational Fund in Los Angeles. “That climate has fueled their desire to have their voices heard.”

New citizens interviewed Thursday echoed those sentiments. Erika Lorena Rivera, 30, came to Los Angeles from Mexico at age 1, became eligible for naturalization a decade ago but decided to take the plunge -- along with four relatives -- just last October. Rivera, a supervisor for a Los Angeles hair accessory firm, said she was offended by what she perceived as growing anti-immigrant bias and was moved to apply for citizenship after seeing ads about it on TV.

“I became a citizen to have full rights and vote for a president for the first time,” said Rivera, adding that she and her family plan to vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama.

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.

Gold said that new Latino citizens have higher voting rates than longtime Mexican Americans and that their political allegiances are shallower. As a result, she said, their votes are still up for grabs for those elected officials willing to work hard to reach them. In addition, she said, the proportion of Latino voters identifying themselves as independents is growing.

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.

“We think with this type of promotion and outreach, we can really rewrite this story of Latino naturalizations,” Gold said.

However, steep fee increases last July sharply reduced the overall monthly number of new applicants from August to December. Applications peaked at 457,000 in July, then plummeted to a monthly average of about 30,000 after the application fee increased to $675 from $400.

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.

The overall decrease in the number of naturalizations last year occurred after special congressional funding to process the backlog of citizenship applications ran out. But applications continued to soar in the Latino community because of the targeted citizenship campaigns, experts said.

Jorge-Mario Cabrera, an El Salvador native and Long Beach community activist, finally naturalized last year with his mother; he had been eligible since 1992. He said he had not become a citizen sooner because he wasn’t sure why it would matter and he still clung to his allegiances to his native land.

That changed a few years ago when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would have criminalized illegal immigrants and those who aided them. Millions of immigrants and supporters poured into the streets to protest, and community organizations mobilized to urge people like Cabrera to naturalize, register to vote and make their voices heard.

Cabrera, 39, and his 73-year-old mother took the plunge.

“We felt there were millions of voices left unheard every year, so we decided our two votes were needed to make a difference,” he said.


To view the complete citizenship report, visit ximgtn/statistics/.