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Originally published Monday, November 3, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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New citizens, especially Latinos, may have clout at the polls

Swept up in election-year fever, a large wave of new citizens could go to the polls and prove immigrants' growing electoral clout. In California alone, more than 298,000 new citizens were sworn in this year, up 39 percent from about 182,000 naturalizations last year. That surge is adding to a growing Latino electorate here, as have similar registration efforts in such swing states as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

McClatchy Newspapers

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Outside most naturalization ceremonies, Democratic and Republican party activists wait at tables for the new citizens to emerge.

They compete for the allegiance of these new Americans — an allegiance that could be tested at the polls on Tuesday.

Swept up in election-year fever, a large wave of new citizens could go to the polls and prove immigrants' growing electoral clout.

In California, more than 298,000 new citizens were sworn in this year, up 39 percent from about 182,000 naturalizations last year. That surge is adding to a growing Latino electorate here, as have similar registration efforts in such swing states as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida.

Among the new citizens eager to vote is Anibal Luna, a 38-year-old Sacramentan who runs his own tax business and registered to vote immediately after he was sworn in during a ceremony in June at Memorial Auditorium.

"Like it or not, our community is growing in California," Luna said. "As soon as I was registered to vote, I turned around and started registering other new citizens to vote."

Mark DiCamillo, director of the California Field Poll, said new Americans are undoubtedly part of the mix of a record 17.3 million registered to vote in Tuesday's election.

Voter registration drives, partisan and nonpartisan, targeting immigrants "may have proven successful," DiCamillo said. "The question now is: Will they vote?"

Latinos make up the majority of new citizens in many states, and they tend to register as Democrats more often than as Republicans.

About 64 percent of California's likely Latino voters are Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. The institute also estimated that, at last count, Latinos constitute about 15 percent of the state's electorate.

Immigrant clout may be even greater, however, when children of immigrants are counted, according to a report released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center.

By 2006, that study found, more than 24 percent of California's registered voters were "new Americans" — those who are naturalized citizens or children born after 1965 to at least one immigrant parent.

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Luna, a first-time, first-generation voter, said he intends to vote for Barack Obama, the Democratic Party contender for president. Since becoming a citizen, Luna also has become a party activist, taking part in a new local Latino Democratic club.

He maintains that the recent economic strain, along with past attacks by Republican Party figures, have persuaded many Latino immigrants he knows to register as Democrats.

"Many of our people were involved in the construction industry, and it has suffered," Luna said.

Silvia Landers, who met Luna when she registered him, said she has registered hundreds — at one event, more than 500 — of new citizens at a time after naturalization ceremonies in Sacramento.

Landers, reached in Florida last week where she is working on voter outreach, said, "I say, 'It's not just about getting your papers or your documents. It's what you can do for your country."'

Carl Burton, Sacramento County GOP vice chairman, said he also has recruited new citizens at naturalization ceremonies. His Republicans of River City Web site features photos of new citizens registering and a volunteer holding a sign that says, "Republicans, register here" in Spanish.

Burton said he signed up 103 people at a one recent ceremony — a rate that, he acknowledged, probably didn't equal the Democrats' gain.

"I would be foolish to say we don't need to do more work, and to get out our message more," he said.

Miryam Mora, 26, is a new citizen the GOP did succeed in recruiting. She became a citizen in March.

The fiancee of California Republican Party spokesman Hector Barajas, Mora has taken a leave from her job at an organ donation group to campaign in Nevada — and turn out Latino voters — for Republican presidential candidate John McCain.

Part of Mora's attraction to McCain was his past support for legalizing undocumented immigrants. She said GOP figures who have bashed immigrants "don't truly represent the majority" in the party.

She also said a new generation of Republican supporters like the GOP's philosophy of fiscal conservatism.

"There's a big movement behind the scenes," Mora said, "that might surprise Democrats in five years or so."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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