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This article appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here.
Miami residents of all ages streamed by the hundreds to Marlins Park on a recent spring Saturday, but they weren’t there for a baseball game.
True, the event opened with members of the crowd rising to place their hands over their hearts. But instead of singing the national anthem, the group of stadium-goers who kicked off the festivities that March 19 were reciting the Oath of Allegiance that marks the naturalization ceremony for U.S. citizenship. And the 1,600 people standing in line in the stadium loggia weren’t waiting for hot dogs. They were immigrants with green cards waiting patiently for help filling out the paperwork to apply for naturalization themselves.
“I’ve had my residency papers for 19 years, but one of the main reasons I’m becoming a citizen now is because I want to vote against Donald Trump,” Cuban exile Antonio Fernandez Robinson told NBC News that day. “He offends me because he is insulting all Hispanics and what he is doing is wrong.”
It’s a familiar refrain among the hundreds of thousands of immigrants now scrambling to become U.S. citizens in time for Election Day. Trump is not the only reason that near-record numbers of immigrants, particularly Latinos, are filling out the paperwork to become citizens and register to vote this year. Latino political engagement has been rising steadily for a decade, fueled by fights over immigration reform, for-profit detention centers, record deportations, and a Supreme Court challenge to President Barack Obama’s order to give millions of young undocumented immigrants and their parents work permits in the U.S.
But for all that, Latinos have been punching below their weight politically. There are more than 55 million Latinos in the United States and 23.3 million were eligible to vote in 2012, but only 11.2 million actually cast ballots in that presidential election—a 48 percent turnout rate that fell well short of the 61.8 percent turnout overall. Moreover, more than 5 million Latinos hold green cards but have not yet become citizens. If all those legal permanent residents actually naturalized, registered, and turned out to vote, and if all eligible Latino voters actually cast ballots, the size of the Latino electorate would more than double.
That’s a gap that the specter of a Trump presidency may close. Latinos aren’t the only minority group galvanized by Trump, to be sure. The GOP standard-bearer’s defamation of Mexicans as criminals and “rapists” who should pay for a massive wall along the border, and his pledges to bar Muslims from the U.S., have outraged immigrants, minorities, and tens of millions of other Americans. Asian Americans, who now comprise 6 percent of the U.S. population, are also aggressively mobilizing voters this year.
But the arguably most politically powerful minority group now mobilizing for the coming election are the nation’s Latinos, whose population of eligible voters is expected to double to 40 million by 2030. A popular topic among Latino policy experts this year is California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot initiative, supported by then–Republican Governor Pete Wilson, that sought to block unauthorized immigrants from public services such as health care and even the right to attend K-12 schools. The initiative passed, but was blocked in court and sparked a backlash that both brought Latinos to the polls in record numbers and turned them resolutely against the Republican Party. The labor movement spent millions on registering Latino voters and getting them to the polls, helping fuel a backlash that is credited with turning California from a purple state to one of deepest blue.
“The U.S. as a whole is sort of going through its Prop 187 moment,” says Manuel Pastor, director of the Center for the Study of Immigration Integration at the University of Southern California.
The fallout will be felt on the presidential campaign trail and well beyond, now that Trump has emerged as the presumptive GOP nominee. Trump’s favorability rating among Latinos is 12 percent, according to Gallup, compared with 59 percent for Hillary Clinton, Trump’s likely opponent this fall. In a matchup with either Clinton or Bernie Sanders, Trump would win a mere 11 percent of the Latino vote, the lowest share ever, according to projections from the immigration reform group America’s Voice.
Latinos would probably not favor a Republican for president in any case; Obama beat Mitt Romney among Latinos by 71 percent to 27 percent in 2012. What may jar Republicans more is the down-ballot damage Trump could inflict. Several states at the heart of the battle for control of the Senate have large Latino populations, including Arizona, Florida, and Nevada.
“People are chomping at the bit to get out and pummel and punish the Republican Party, which has so blatantly shown its contempt and disrespect for Latinos and immigrants,” says Kica Matos, director of immigrant rights and racial justice at Center for Community Change Action, which has teamed up with the Latino Victory Project and America’s Voice on a $15 million campaign to educate and turn out Latino voters in Colorado, Florida, and Nevada. “And from the perspective of advocacy organizations, we are going to do everything we can to ensure that our communities register to vote, and turn out to vote.”
THE CHALLENGE FOR LATINOS is to translate their community’s latent voting power into actual ballots cast. Several factors have long depressed Latino voter participation. These include comparatively lower levels of income and education—though those same variables exist among African Americans, who turned out at a rate of 66.6 percent in 2012. The Latino population is also disproportionately young, according to the Pew Research Center—about a quarter, or 14.6 million, are millennials younger than 33, a cohort that includes many first-time voters and tends to turn out at lower rates.
The story of the Latino electorate, Pew data show, is one of vast unrealized potential. Some 5.4 million Latinos are eligible to become citizens, as legal permanent residents who have lived in the U.S. for five years, but have not yet naturalized. Another 9.6 million are eligible to vote but have not yet registered. That adds up to 15 million potential voters in the Latino electorate who are not showing up at the polls. Given that 13.1 million are projected to cast ballots on Election Day in 2016, that means Latinos are fulfilling less than half their electoral potential.
“We know there’s a performance gap,” acknowledged Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Education Fund (NALEO), at a February briefing at the National Press Club. “As much as we know Latinos are decisive and their voting has made a difference in the outcome of statewide elections [and] presidential elections, we also know we have work to do.”
NALEO is one of dozens of immigrant advocacy, civil-rights, labor, and progressive groups working to change all that in 2016. It’s not the first time organizers have sought to naturalize immigrants and turn them out to vote. But a perfect storm of factors has ramped up immigrant civic engagement efforts in 2016. A pair of national initiatives focused on immigrant naturalization—the New Americans Campaign and the National Partnership for New Americans—have gotten a big assist from the White House, which has pumped $10 million into a “Stand Stronger” citizenship campaign, complete with public service announcements and celebrity “ambassadors,” to help naturalize the 8.8 million immigrants who are eligible to become U.S. citizens.
Edith Ingunza, left, of Mi Familia Vota, a voting rights organization, assists new citizen Nieves Guaba in registering to vote in Miami Beach, Florida.
Immigrant and Latino advocacy groups that had sprung into action to implement Obama’s executive orders to give more work permits to young immigrants and their parents—known as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals and Deferred Action for Parental Accountability—had to suspend those efforts when both DAPA and the DACA expansion were held up by lawsuits, and were rejected in June by the Supreme Court. Instead of sending their volunteers and field organizers home, immigrant advocates redirected their activities toward political mobilization. Notes Pastor, “What happens if you are all dressed up, and you have nowhere to go?”
And then there’s Trump. Interviews with community activists and volunteers around the country suggest that Trump has helped fuel a massive spike in the number of immigrants seeking naturalization for the express purpose of voting against him. Nationwide, applications for citizenship shot up 14 percent in the last six months of 2015, the most recent benchmark available. By some estimates, the number of citizenship applications will hit one million this year, some 200,000 higher than average.
Naturalizations tend to spike during election years in any case, and often go up for unrelated reasons such as looming green-card fee hikes. But organizers running naturalization workshops in libraries, churches, synagogues, schools, and community centers around the country say the foot traffic of immigrants coming through their doors has doubled and even tripled. At the New York Immigration Coalition, which expects to naturalize 5,000 immigrants this year, executive director Steven Choi says field organizers around the state tell him that the immigrants flocking to their citizenship workshops cite Trump as the number one reason they want to naturalize.
“In the past, it was, ‘I want to naturalize because I want to claim Social Security benefits,’ or ‘I want to be able to travel more,’ or ‘I want to access certain types of jobs,’” says Choi. “This year, people are coming and saying, ‘I want to naturalize and become a citizen because I need to vote in the November elections. I need to vote because of what Donald Trump is saying.’”
Also new this year, says Choi, is unprecedented coordination among immigrant advocates focused on getting immigrants to the polls. In the past, balkanized campaigns for naturalization, voter registration, political messaging, and turnout all tended to take place on separate tracks. Now, organizers are working together to launch immigrants on a glide path that starts with naturalization and steers citizens seamlessly toward voting. Immigrants seeking naturalization or becoming citizens also get help registering; registered voters get help learning about candidates and finding their polling places; voters casting ballots have access to hotlines in the event that they run into trouble at the polls with voter ID or other problems.
“People are naturalizing, and they are going to register, and they are going to turn out to vote, and they are going to reward their friends and punish their enemies,” declares Josh Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans.
Hoyt’s organization is part of an army of progressive, labor, and advocacy groups mobilizing to engage Latinos, from NALEO to Voto Latino, the National Council of La Raza, Mi Familia Vota, United We Dream, and the Immigrant Legal Resource Center. They’ve launched campaigns with slogans like “Stand Up to Hate” and “Citizenship Now!” and have rolled out toll-free numbers, collaborations with Latino media, and digital and TV ad campaigns. The deep-pocketed advocacy group FWD.us, a pro-immigration reform effort backed by Silicon Valley executives, has pitched in with a series of slick ads that excoriate Trump and detail the costs of his plans for mass deportation. Spanish-language broadcaster Univision has hosted hundreds of voter-registration and citizenship drives that have drawn more than 100,000 people. NALEO projects that 13.1 million Latinos will cast ballots on Election Day, a 17 percent increase in turnout over 2012, and an 8.7 percent bigger share of the overall electorate.
Protesters demonstrate against Donald Trump as he meets with Republican leadership at the National Republican Congressional Committee Headquarters in Washington, May 12, 2016.
REPUBLICANS ARE BRACING for the worst. Trump appears to have accelerated a Latino tsunami headed for the GOP. Following the 2012 election, the Republican National Committee’s “Growth and Opportunity Project” postmortem warned that unless the GOP tackled its problem with Hispanics and other emerging demographic groups, “we will lose future elections.” Yet GOP primary voters in 2016 rejected the presidential hopefuls who might have appealed to Latinos, including former Governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, both of Florida. As the implications of Trump’s emergence as GOP standard-bearer sink in, some Republicans are sounding the alarm.
“If Donald Trump is at the top of the ticket,” Arizona Senator John McCain told a group of donors at a private fundraiser in April, “here in Arizona, with over 30 percent of the vote being the Hispanic vote, no doubt that this may be the race of my life,” according to a recording obtained by Politico. Polls show McCain is facing a strong challenge this year from U.S. Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, his likely Democratic opponent. (After Trump locked down the nomination, McCain endorsed him but also announced he would not attend the Republican Convention this summer.)
In several other key Senate battlegrounds, most notably Florida and Nevada, Latino voters could deliver Democrats a decisive assist. One of the reasons Hispanic voting power has been diluted nationally is that high percentages of the Latino population live in California and Texas—states that are not considered political battlegrounds. But both the Florida and Nevada Senate contests are pure toss-ups, and both states have growing Latino electorates. In Nevada, the likely GOP nominee—House Republican Joe Heck—is expected to face Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s former attorney general. If elected, she would be the Senate’s first Latina. The NALEO Educational Fund projects that 194,000 Latinos will cast ballots in Nevada this year, boosting Latinos’ turnout by 7.1 percent over 2012.
In Florida’s open-seat contest to succeed Rubio, the crowded field includes Republicans Ron DeSantis, a House member, and Lieutenant Governor Carlos Lopez-Cantera, as well as Democratic House members Patrick Murphy and Alan Grayson. Florida’s anticipated Latino turnout is 1.7 million, the NALEO Educational Fund projects, a full 19.6 percent increase over 2012. Considered a national bellwether this year, Florida is also a state with considerable latent Latino voting power. A full 830,000 of the legal permanent residents living in Florida, a high percentage of them Latino, are eligible to naturalize, according to the federal Office of Immigration Statistics.
It’s impossible to predict how many green-card holders, in Florida or elsewhere, will ultimately become citizens, register, and vote in this election. And anyone who has applied for naturalization later than May 30 will probably be out of luck on Election Day, as it typically takes at least five months for citizenship applications to be processed. Predictions of massive Latino electoral impact have been made before—for instance, when some Hispanic voters pledged to punish Republicans who blocked immigration reform legislation in 2010—only to fall short.
Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Council of La Raza Annual Conference Monday, July 13, 2015, in Kansas City, Missouri.
“Are people who didn’t vote in 2012 going to show up to vote in 2016 because of Trump?” asks Mark Hugo Lopez, director of Hispanic research at the Pew Research Center. “That’s the question that I don’t think research has really answered yet.”
Historically, immigrants to the U.S. have come of age politically when galvanized by existing institutions. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish immigrants were integral to the Democratic political machine in New York City known as Tammany Hall. That Democratic organization aggressively naturalized Irish immigrants—sometimes fraudulently—and doled out aid and jobs to low-income Irish communities. (The abuses of that era still resonate in conservatives’ campaign to suppress Democratic votes by reining in alleged voter fraud through voter ID and other ballot-access limits aimed in part at Latinos. Reported instances of such fraud are all but nonexistent.) Today, the key to unlocking Latinos’ political voice may lie with the established labor and progressive groups now organizing on a massive scale.
But for all the energy generated by Trump and the 2016 election, says Pastor of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration, the awakening of the sleeping Latino giant is a gradual process that has been building for years, and whose full impact may not be felt until the next presidential contest.
“In 2020, the demographics will have moved further,” Pastor says. “It’s a presidential year, so you are going to get more people of color voting in that year. And that [coincides] with the 2020 Census, and the elections that will reshape the state legislatures for the next decade. And that may be when the giant really wakes up.”
Whatever happens this year, time is on Latino voters’ side. The youthful tilt of the Latino community can depress turnout, but it also means that even if immigrant organizers did absolutely nothing, the Hispanic electorate would continue to balloon. The Pew Research Center estimates that 803,000 U.S.-born Latinos turn 18 every year. Pew projects that Hispanics will account for 40 percent of the growth in the nation’s voting-eligible electorate between now and 2030, when the number of Latinos eligible to vote will hit 40 million, compared with 27.3 million today.
“If we can engage the youth within the Latino community, we can change our political structure for years to come,” predicts Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which promotes Latino civic participation.
If the 1,600 Floridians who sought naturalization help in March at the Marlins Park “MEGA Citizenship Day” are any indication, Latinos are on track to at least send a strong message to Trump and the Republican Party this year. That’s partly because naturalized citizens tend to vote at a higher rate than native-born citizens in immigrant communities.
“Although it’s an unfortunate time in our country, it’s also one of promise and opportunity for all of us,” says Greisa Martinez, an undocumented immigrant who is advocacy director of the youth network United We Dream. “The promise is a more engaged electorate, an electorate that understands its role in stopping people from coming to power, and understands its role in keeping elected officials and representatives accountable.”
This story has been updated from its print version to reflect the Supreme Court's immigration in June.