Maricela Andrade, who is in her late 20s, came to the United States as a child. Her father arrived first for work. Once he gained stability, he brought his family from Michoacán, Mexico in 2002. Andrade became eligible to apply for citizenship almost a decade ago, but she put it off. A few years ago, she renewed her green card.
Then, the tumult of this year’s presidential season hit, bringing calls for a U.S.-Mexico border wall, deportation squads, blanket statements about Latinos and sharp criticism of immigrant families who contribute to the U.S. in ways that are often overlooked.
Andrade quickly became part of a growing number of immigrants, many of whom are Latino, nationwide who are registering to vote particularly in response to the anti-immigrant rhetoric they’ve heard in Election 2016. “It’s hurtful,” she said.
Since last fall, more eligible immigrants have filed applications for citizenship. In the last six months of 2015, 387,594 people submitted applications, compared to 339,141 during the same period the year before — a jump of 14 percent, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services data. Since then, grassroots advocates say, more immigrants have been applying for citizenship, especially so they can vote.
Latino citizens are among the fastest-growing group of voters in the U.S., according to the Pew Research Center. In fact, the number of Latino voters who are millennials now stands at 12 million.
In March, Andrade took her citizenship oath and is registered to vote in Oregon. Her Election 2016 decision, she said, is important because she feels a responsibility to the non-voting immigrant community, especially as the nation’s population becomes increasingly racially diverse.
“I’m a voice for others,” she said. “I want to make the right decision.”
In Oregon, Causa is a statewide immigrant rights organization that focuses on working with the Latino community. The nonpartisan organization holds citizenship workshops, preparing applications for eligible immigrants and coordinating with pro-bono attorneys to ensure a smooth path to approval.
Since the presidential season has picked up, Causa has seen greater demand at these workshops, said Andrea Miller, its executive director. Her community organizers advised would-be citizens to file their applications in time to meet voter registration deadlines.
It can take up to five months or so to get approved for citizenship, and not all applicants gain the status. Andrade filed her application in November 2015. In March, she celebrated becoming a citizen.
To apply for citizenship, legal permanent residents — or green card holders — must be at least 18 years old and have had permanent residency status for at least five years.
During those five years, immigrants cannot have spent more than 30 months out of the country or more than 12 consecutive months. Prospective citizens must be able to speak, read and write basic English. They also have to pass a test about the fundamentals of U.S. history and government.
Millie Rumbo, another Oregon resident who prepared her citizenship application with Causa, held off on submitting the document, as of earlier this year, because of the $680 price tag. Her goal, though, was to file it so she can vote in November. She, too, cites Trump’s policy positions on immigration as a key reason she sees this election as crucial.
Miller, Causa’s executive director, said Mexican immigrants are the largest group of legal permanent residents in the United States, but they are the least likely to apply for citizenship. The language barrier is one big reason, though people who are older and have been here for many years can qualify for an exception to take the citizenship test in their native language.
The fees, Miller said, are a second barrier. First, there are application costs. After that, many applicants pay legal fees as well as costs to gather the necessary documents.
Despite the difficulties, this election is prompting thousands of people to become citizens. Virtually all of the people signing up for a Causa workshop late last year, Miller said, cited voting as the main reason they wanted to become citizens.
In Illinois, Dagmara Avelar coordinates the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights’ (ICIRR) outreach and training programs. The Illinois state Legislature and Gov. Bruce Rauner remain in a budget standoff, which has resulted in nonprofit agencies losing public dollars to provide services.
ICIRR, a nonpartisan organization, has managed to hold regular citizenship workshops, which organizers say are well attended. Participants, Avelar said, have started lining up at 6 or 7 a.m. for a 9 a.m. workshop.
As in Oregon, Illinois community organizers who work with immigrants have highlighted the importance of civic participation and voting, linking Election 2016 to citizenship efforts. They’ve urged people to file their applications with enough of a cushion to ensure they’ll able to vote in November.
In March, a workshop at the Mexican consulate in Chicago attracted 300 people for a space that fit 100, according to ICIRR. Since October 2015, ICIRR alone has helped more than 680 people through the citizenship process. It also works with a coalition of organizations across Illinois.
Ubaldo Aguilar, a Guatemalan immigrant in his 30s who has had his green card since he was a teenager, has been an outspoken advocate of getting the right to vote. He volunteers with the nonpartisan Centro de Trabajadores Unidos (Immigrant Workers Project) in Chicago, connecting people with free legal services and information about their rights as renters, employees and U.S. residents.
When he was a newly-arrived immigrant from Venezuela, the center offered assistance, which inspired him to give back to community efforts. Aguilar believes it’s critical that Latinos participate in elections and other civic affairs.
“The people who have access to citizenship, we can take the leap and represent the Latino community, especially with decisions that affect us, as Latinos,” he said.
ICIRR’s Avelar is herself a new citizen. Her job centers on teaching people about the importance of citizenship, including voting rights and the stability that the status brings. As soon as she was eligible to become a citizen, she applied.
She is set to vote in November. “It’s very exciting to be able to be part of this new wave of citizens that is becoming civically engaged and educated about the importance of voting,” she said.
When she does vote, she’ll bring her husband and his family, who routinely sat out past elections because they didn’t believe in the power of casting a ballot.
Among Avelar’s family, seven people will be voting for the first time this fall — one new citizen, two naturalized citizens, and four people who were born here.
“This whole anti-immigrant rhetoric has lit the fire in a lot of people who otherwise would have stayed home,” she said.
Tara García Mathewson is a journalist based in Boston. As an Equal Voice Journalism Fellow, she wrote about public housing and families in Chicago. The fellowship is supported by Marguerite Casey Foundation, which publishes Equal Voice News.
2016 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper