Wall Street Journal
By Miriam Jordan
February 23, 2016
Latino advocacy and media groups are coordinating a major effort to spur eligible Hispanic immigrants, many angered by campaign rhetoric, to become U.S. citizens and register to vote ahead of the November election.
While there have been citizenship drives in past election cycles, the organizers, many with ties to labor unions and other left-leaning groups, say this one is particularly intense and broad-based. The groups plan to target both swing states like Colorado and solidly Democratic or Republican ones, like California and Texas.
More than half of the eight million legal permanent residents, who are eligible to become naturalized U.S. citizens, are Latino, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
Corporations, media companies and donors are spending millions to fund the campaign, which also leans on volunteers in Hispanic communities. Organizers are hosting free citizenship workshops, launching print and digital media campaigns, and knocking on doors, and the groups say Latinos appear to be galvanized by the tough talk on immigration by some Republican candidates.
“We have been attacked before but never at the national level like this by a serious presidential contender,” said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a group with ties to the Service Employees International Union that is part of the campaign. “The community is responding by building political power.”
GOP front-runner Donald Trump disparaged Mexicans during his speech announcing his candidacy last year, and he has vowed to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants and erect a wall along the southwest border. Sen. Ted Cruz has also vowed to step up efforts to deport undocumented immigrants, while both he and Sen. Marco Rubio have suggested they would end protections from deportation for those people brought to the U.S. illegally as children. No GOP contender has supported an immigration overhaul with a pathway to citizenship.
Democrats stand to benefit from the shift of Latinos’ focus away from their disappointment over record deportations under the Obama administration. And Republicans are worried the rhetoric could push Latinos, who lean Democratic, further from the GOP camp.
“Any candidate that does not reach out to the Hispanic community for support is doing themselves a disservice,” said Arizona Sen. John McCain. “I am confident Hispanic voters will recognize that the negative rhetoric of a few candidates is not reflective of the entire Republican Party.”
In the 2012 election, Republican Mitt Romney won just 27% of the Latino vote, down from Mr. McCain’s 31% when he was the presidential nominee four years earlier, according to the Naleo Educational Fund, a nonpartisan group that works to raise Latino civic participation and backs a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.
Both of those numbers are down from President George W. Bush’s 44% of the Latino vote in his 2004 re-election, according to Naleo.
Latinos are the nation’s second-largest population group, representing 11% of eligible voters in 2014, up from 5% in 1986, according to the Pew Research Center.
The group historically has a lower voter-participation rate than others, but it is growing. In 2012, 11.2 million Latinos cast ballots, 8% more than in 2008. This year that figure is expected to climb 17%, to at least 13.1 million, according to Naleo projections.
Immigrants who become citizens, or naturalize, report higher rates of political participation than Latinos born in the U.S., advocacy groups said.
Mi Familia Vota plans at least one citizenship workshop every month through May in several states, to ensure individuals complete the several-month naturalization process in time for November. On Saturday, it will host clinics in Colorado and California. Immigrants will receive help filling out naturalization forms, assistance on whether they are eligible for a waiver of the $680 application fee, legal counseling and a study guide for the oral citizenship test.
In Florida, where about 500,000 Latinos are eligible to naturalize, an advocacy group is teaming with churches, businesses and unions to host several workshops. A March 19 clinic at Marlins Stadium in Miami aims to attract 1,000 applicants.
“The opportunity to build an immigrant electorate in Florida is staggering,” said Maria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition.
In Nevada, 60,000 Hispanics are eligible to naturalize. The powerful Culinary Union, whose members include many Latino casino workers, plans to get 2,500 members to become citizens. It has also pledged to register 12,000 union members to vote.
In an unusual collaboration between competitors, Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo are launching a campaign in Los Angeles, home to nearly 800,000 Latinos eligible to naturalize. Univision is principally owned by Hillary Clinton fundraiser Haim Saban.
With the slogan, “Protegete! Ciudadania Ya!” (Protect Yourself! Citizenship Now!”), public-service announcements will steer viewers to a website listing citizenship fairs and resources, including toll-free numbers to call with questions.
Publisher ImpreMedia, the parent company of Spanish-language dailies and weeklies in large cities, is also participating. The message is that citizenship “will protect them from an increasingly hostile political climate,” ImpreMedia spokesman Gabriel Lerner said.
On March 6, its Los Angeles daily, La Opinion, will re-launch a free weekly to be distributed to about 250,000 households. The first edition will focus exclusively on the topic of citizenship, which will have a designated page in every future edition, Mr. Lerner said.
Organizers said there is an effort to raise funds for the campaign, but they declined to cite a specific amount. Among current donors are several national foundations, like the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the Knight Foundation. Citigroup Inc.’s Citibank is a corporate donor.
Experts say it is early to predict what impact the citizenship drive will ultimately have at the ballot box.
“The question yet to be answered is whether a greater sense of urgency translates into a significantly greater turnout,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California.
Mr. Monterroso, of Mi Familia Vota, says the campaign is designed with an eye beyond 2016. “This is also for the long term,” he said.
Organizers are betting on people like Pamela Zamora. The U.S.-born Las Vegas high-school senior said her father was handcuffed, imprisoned and placed in deportation proceedings when she was 10. He has since become a legal resident. “I have lived the immigration nightmare,” said Ms. Zamora, now a volunteer with Mi Familia Vota. “We have the numbers to shape the election.”
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