Number of Mexicans Nationalized Doubled Last Year

Friday, 11 Jul 2008 02:03 PM

By Phil Brennan

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The number of native Mexicans who became U.S. citizens skyrocketed by almost 50 percent in 2007, according to a U.S. Office of Immigration Statistics report issued Thursday.

More than 122,000 native-born Mexicans became citizens last year, up from 84,000 in 2006, the report notes. California and Texas showed the largest increases during a period when the overall number of all U.S. naturalizations declined by 6 percent.

The increase wasn't accidental, the report shows. The massive number of Mexicans nationalized was spurred by a vigorous campaign by Spanish-language media and immigrant advocacy groups to help eligible residents apply for citizenship.

According to the Los Angeles Times, more than 400 community organizations across the country — along with major Spanish-language media — joined forces in a "Ya Es Hora" (It's Time) campaign to help eligible voters become citizens and register to vote. The campaign plans to hold naturalization workshops in 10 cities Saturday.

However, steep fee increases last July sharply reduced the overall monthly number of new applicants from August to December. Applications peaked at 457,000 in July, and then plummeted to a monthly average of about 30,000 after the application fee increased from $400 to $675.

The report finds that California posted the largest gains in new citizens in 2007 (from 153,000 the year before to 182,000) followed by Texas (from 38,000 to 53,000) and Illinois (from 30,000 to 39,000).

The report shows that in 2007 the number of citizenship applications filed doubled to 1.4 million, adding the surge in naturalization of Mexicans came during the bitter nationwide debate over immigration reform.

The report attributes the increase to the media campaign, community group efforts, and the overwhelming desire to seek citizenship before the steep fee increases took effect.

"Immigrants are tired of the tone and tenor of the immigration debate, which they feel is humiliating and does not recognize their contributions," Rosalind Gold tells The Los Angeles Times.

Gold, a member of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials' Educational Fund says the new climate “fueled their desire to have their voices heard."

"We think with this type of promotion and outreach, we can really rewrite this story of Latino naturalizations," Gold says.

Erika Lorena Rivera, 30-year-old who came to Los Angeles from Mexico when she was a year old, tells The Times she became eligible for naturalization 10 years ago but, along with four relatives, didn’t apply until last October. She explains that she was offended by what she sees as a growing bias against immigrants and adds that she was moved to apply for citizenship after seeing ads about it on TV.

"I became a citizen to have full rights and vote for a president for the first time," Rivera says, adding that she and her family plan to vote for Democratic candidate Barack Obama in November, a trend that could affect the outcome of the presidential race according to Louis DiSipio, a University of California-Irvine political science professor.

DiSipio tells The Times that one of the biggest impacts could be in Florida, a key battleground state that posted 54,500 new citizens last year. DiSipio explains that although Florida's ethnic Cuban population has long dominated the Latino political landscape and tended to vote Republican, more of the newer immigrants are coming from South America and are trending to vote Democratic.

Gold tells The Times that for the first time in this decade, more Latinos are registered as Democrats than Republicans (35% to 33%).

According to DiSipio, the swelling Latino numbers nationwide will continue to reshape the political landscape for local elections. DiSipio says that, thanks to the 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants, growing Latino naturalizations in the late 1990s helped California Democrats gain an 800,000-plus voter edge, and similar gains could occur with the newest increase.

Gold adds that new Latino citizens have higher voting rates than longtime Mexican Americans and that their political allegiances are shallower. As a result, their votes are still up for grabs for those elected officials willing to work hard to reach them. In addition, the proportion of Latino voters identifying themselves as independents is growing, Gold tells The Times.

Erica L. Bernal-Martinez, senior director of civic engagement for the association of Latino officials, tells The Times that grass-roots organizations plan to continue to encourage naturalization for the estimated 5 million eligible Latinos.

Mexicans have historically had low rates of naturalization — 35% compared with 59% for all immigrants — but that appears to be changing as media and community organizations pour unprecedented resources and energy into civic engagement campaigns, both Bernal-Martinez and Gold tell The Times

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