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.
"As we have more Asian American and Latino voters, our electorate will begin to look more like the face of the public at large," said Mark Baldassare of the Public Policy Institute. "From the standpoint of representative democracy, few things could be more important than this."
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.
"You could not go throughout Los Angeles and not be bombarded with the message that it's time to become a citizen," said Vargas, whose organization helped spearhead the national campaign called Ya Es Hora ("It's Time").
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.
Arellano said she first met with activists in 2006 about their citizenship campaign plans. As she watched citizenship applications shoot up in January 2008, Arellano immediately appealed to her agency's headquarters for extra help.
In all, she managed to add more than 100 extra staff, won authorization for weekend overtime work and worked with the courts to add and expand citizenship ceremonies. The high point came in September, when 34,000 new citizens took the oath of allegiance -- more than a fourfold increase over the previous year, Arellano 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."
"It made me think that that's the way to change anything in this country," said Llamas, who cast her first vote, for Obama, in November.
Those demographic and political trends will continue to marginalize Republicans unless the party makes major changes in its tone and policies toward immigrants, said Allan Hoffenblum, a Republican political consultant in Los Angeles.
"The reason the Republican Party is in such dire straits is its inability to successfully reach out and change its image among Latinos and Asians," he said. "The image is too shrill on immigration. It's an image of an intolerant cult."
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.
But last year, he said, he was swept up in the marches and the call for civic activism.
"It was time for me to build a stronger future for my family and become a more active person in this country," he said.
Ultimately, Vargas said, the citizenship wave will help Latinos and other new U.S. citizens contribute even more to the country.
"This isn't about helping Latinos for the sake of helping Latinos," Vargas said. "This is about helping Latinos succeed for the sake of America."