Naturalized citizens could be critical in this fall’s election

Tens of thousands of new U.S. citizens could be a powerful force in the 2020 elections … if they go to the polls

 (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
(Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 2, 2020 at 5:00am

At her naturalization ceremony, Blanca Inhof, a 49-year-old woman from West Lawn, Pa., could not hold back her tears.

“I have been waiting for this moment for 25 years. I always wanted to become a citizen, but … we couldn’t get the money together,” says Inhof, who works as a translator for her school district.  “It’s been a bit of a struggle, but we are so grateful to be here,” she adds. “Indeed, we are in a free, free country — a beautiful country. It has brought so much happiness in my life.”

After her mother passed away 25-or-so years ago, Blanca came to the United States from Mexico on a 10-year visa. She considers it a “miracle” that she was able to immigrate legally in search of a new beginning, a better life. A couple of years after she arrived, she met her husband, David Inhof, and within months they married. He, along with their two children — a 20-year-old daughter studying in college to be an interior architect and a high-schooler son who wants to join the Marines — watched Blanca take the momentous final step to citizenship one February afternoon in Philadelphia.

Along one wall inside the ceremony room, volunteers waited with voter registrations forms, and Blanca filled one out. While it was not the determining factor, the 2020 election contributed to Blanca’s naturalization decision. Having her citizenship pending any longer would have added a layer of precarity to her family’s life.

“We don’t trust him — it’s plain and simple — we don’t trust him,” David Inhof says, referring to President Donald Trump. “He’s kicked legal residents out and put kids in cages.”

The continual crop of new citizens like Blanca Inhof in Pennsylvania and across the country represents a “sleeping political giant,” says Diego Iniguez-Lopez, policy and campaign manager at the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of state, federal and local organizations working to naturalize immigrants and register them to vote.

Naturalizations tend to spike in an election year and drop right after. If fiscal 2020 follows a similar rise in naturalization rates as fiscal 2016, unhindered by closures due to the coronavirus pandemic, then this year alone may see around 860,000 naturalized citizens, according to NPNA’s analysis of government data. Between the last presidential election and the upcoming one in November, there may be an estimated 3.1 million naturalizations, many distributed across key battleground states. And there may be significant political muscle in those votes. 

Immigration is a key concern for the Inhofs because of how it affects Blanca. But the couple cares about trade tariffs, unemployment, education and other issues that shape their lives. Together, these will inform their decision come November.

Blanca says she’s excited about the ability to cast a ballot in the state she now calls home. It’s something she had been aching for a long time.

Potential power brokers

As the presidential primary season swings into high gear, immigrant voters may play a consequential role: Over 23 million U.S. citizens who were born abroad will be eligible to vote in the 2020 election, according to a Pew Research Center analysis from February. As 10 percent of the overall electorate, that would be a record high. Nearly half of these voters live in states with Democratic primaries or caucuses that took place by March 3, Super Tuesday.

In fact, the number of new citizens since the last election alone exceeds Trump’s margin of victory in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Michigan combined, and has made up substantial portions of the growth in each state’s eligible voters since 2016. In other states, like Texas, they may be critical to local and state elections, or may propel new candidates to congressional seats. Like Blanca Inhof, these potential new voters bring with them rich stories about where they came from, and diverse opinions about where they would like to take their new country next, and have a range of issues they care about.

New Americans line up at their naturalization ceremony in Philadelphia. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)

The catch, however, is that immigrants face multiple barriers to naturalization and to participating in government, due to language differences, fear of authorities and lack of information on how to vote. If they are low-wage earners, as many tend to be, multiple shifts may prevent them from making it to the polls. Government office closures and ballot accessibility issues due to the coronavirus pandemic may make naturalizations and voting even more difficult. 

But some research has found that those able to transcend these obstacles end up going to the polls at the same or higher rates than native-born Americans. According to Pew, naturalized Hispanic and Asian voters — two of the biggest immigrant groups — tend to turn out at higher rates than their native-born counterparts from the same groups.

“Yes, we have opportunities in the immediate term if the investments are there to target these populations, in particular, and to talk about issues that are top of mind, to talk about immigration when other campaigns might be pivoting away from the issue of immigration,” says Tom Wong, an associate professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego who has been creating new methods to isolate these so-called “new American” voters. “I think that’s how we unlock the potential electoral power of this new American electorate.”

Advocates and politicians caution that new Americans are not a monolith. Each community may have a kaleidoscope of views that make it more or less likely to support a particular candidate.

Business-minded South Asian Americans in the Texas suburbs, religious Mexican Americans in Arizona concerned about abortion, and Cuban Americans now living in South Florida after living through the Cuban revolution may not line up cleanly with prevailing assumptions about how they’re likely to cast their votes.

In other words, these voters could be up for grabs if politicians running for office care to court them.

The naturalization boom

Blanca Inhof gained citizenship along with around 70 other people — many also hailing from Pennsylvania but some from as far as Delaware — that February afternoon.

The unassuming U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office that hosted the ceremony, tucked away in a West Philly corner, swore in 140 citizens just that day. That office conducts between four and six ceremonies a week, making about 10,000 new citizens a year. 

According to NPNA’s tally of government data, an estimated 80,379 adults have been naturalized in Pennsylvania since 2017. That’s almost double the margin of Trump’s victory there a year earlier, when he won by 44,292 votes.

New citizens add to some of the few growing demographic groups in an otherwise shrinking state. Pennsylvania’s population has been largely flat since 2010, at about 12.8 million, as the more rural, less diverse western portion of the state loses people compared to the growing, diversifying eastern half.


Blanca Inhof, right, verifies her biographical information with the USCIS clerk at her naturalization ceremony in February. (Tanvi Misra/CQ Roll Call)

According to census data, Pennsylvania gained about 100,000 naturalized citizens between 2010 and 2018. The state is now roughly 4 percent naturalized citizens, up from less than 3 percent in 2010.

That growth, coupled with new congressional maps, have factored in flipping several Philadelphia-area seats in recent elections. Blanca, for instance, lives in the 6th Congressional District represented by first-term Democratic Rep. Chrissy Houlahan. Diversifying suburbs may play a key factor in some of the most competitive congressional seats in the country, such as Pennsylvania’s 1st District held by Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, a Republican.

The call of citizenship

Naturalized voters will be roughly the same as the size of the Generation Z bloc of eligible voters — people born after 1996. For the first time in a presidential election, both may be larger than the so-called “Silent Generation” born before 1946, according to Pew. The growth in these potential voters — naturalized citizens who are at least 18 years of age — has increased by 93 percent since 2000.

Over the last few decades, immigrant groups have viewed naturalization as a way to leverage community power, especially in cases where they feel villainized in the prevailing rhetoric, says University of California, Irvine political science professor Louis DeSipio. 

“I think we have seen increasingly over the last 25 years now concerted efforts to mobilize naturalization around anger at the way immigrants are treated in national discourse,” DeSipio says.

The 2008 election also saw a massive spike in newAmericans, largely the result of naturalization campaigns ahead of the presidential election and a rush to get applications in before a hike in naturalization fees a year earlier, according to the Migration Policy Institute.

But the fee hike and growing application backlog under the Obama administration blunted the spikes the next two elections.

After 2016, however, experts and advocates reported a great deal of enthusiasm, in part because Trump’s presidential campaign rhetoric targeting immigrants has created an additional layer of insecurity.

Another reason is what naturalization advocates call the administration’s “second wall” — a slate of proposals that make naturalization an intimidating and prohibitively expensive prospect. The current administration’s proposal to dramatically increase naturalization fees by roughly 83 percent, in particular, is pushing people to take their final steps towards citizenship, lest they can no longer afford to do so in the future.

While the estimated numbers of new voters expected in fiscal 2020 are lower than 2008 peak, they can still make a huge difference — that is, if they turn out to the polls.

Questions of turnout

While the gap between voting rates of naturalized versus native-born citizens has narrowed over time, it’s still significant. According to the Census Bureau, about 68 percent of native-born Americans registered to vote in 2018, about 10 percentage points lower than the registration rate for naturalized citizens. Similarly, around 54 percent of native-born citizens voted that year, whereas the percentage for naturalized Americans was 46 percent. 

Structural barriers can keep people in lower income brackets from voting and many immigrants may face the same issues — digital divides, access to information about voting and candidates in the right language, limited access to polling places, shorter voting hours and voter ID laws. But increases in income, education and voting age population means that “immigrant voting will be increasingly relevant to electoral outcomes in years to come,” the Census Bureau predicted in 2016. Indeed, naturalized citizens made up 8 percent of the ballots cast in the 2018 midterm elections — twice their share compared to 1996. 

By becoming citizens, immigrants, and often their families, are on steadier ground: They can sponsor their immediate family members who may still live abroad, access benefits that they may otherwise not be eligible for, and of course, they can vote. 

Their interest in getting civically involved isn’t always reciprocated by political candidates, though, potentially further discouraging voters

“I think it is a systemic issue of not having been engaged before,” says Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a Washington state Democrat who often speaks about being one of the few naturalized citizens in Congress. “I think a lot of immigrants do come to the United States and perhaps are escaping repressive regimes. They tend to want to keep their head down, work hard and not do anything that draws attention.”

As co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Jayapal has had conversations with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee to encourage a more tailored approach to voter education, outreach and communication: Ads in multiple languages in community news outlets and publications, as well as messengers who look like the voters they’re targeting and who understand their experiences.

“I do think it’s a challenge to not have our engagement feel transactional,” she says. 

Jayapal points to work that her Democratic colleague, Rep. Grace Meng of New York, conducts in state suburbs to turn out new voters.

Meng, a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, says outreach to new citizens requires much of the same in-person effort needed for other voter groups. Her Queens district includes more than 200,000 naturalized citizens, among the most in the country.

In 2018, Meng also went to Asian fish markets and grocery stores in Nevada with now-Sen. Jacky Rosen in her race to unseat Republican Sen. Dean Heller. That sort of literal retail politics can help build a relationship with a community — which Meng attributes to part of Rosen’s 50,000-vote victory over Heller.

Getting new voters involved in the process doesn’t necessarily mean catering to their views on particular issues. Sometimes, it’s as simple as showing up.

“People just feel respected. ‘Oh, this candidate came to visit us in our neighborhoods and met us where we are,’” Meng says. “So I think that’s important, instead of saying, ‘Oh, come to my campaign office, which is in the center of whatever business district where you’re not comfortable.’”

 Eyes on Texas

Meng and other members of CAPAC have reached out to the growing Asian American communities in the Texas suburbs, for instance.

According to an NPNA estimate of government naturalization data, around 96,161 people may naturalize by Sept. 30, the end of fiscal 2020. Since 2017, total naturalizations are estimated at 310,732.

Democrats in Texas hope to capitalize on that growth. Luke Warford, the state party’s director of voter expansion, says the state’s growing diversity means the 2020 electorate will be friendlier to Democrats trying to flip the state legislature and add to the party’s House majority in Congress.

“The urban areas have already flipped blue, and as that diversity spreads out into the suburbs, the suburbs start to become more diverse as well,” Warford says. “The competitive districts are now just outside urban areas rather than in the downtown.”

The 22nd District, which includes Houston suburbs such as Sugar Land, contains key South Asian immigrant communities. It is currently represented by retiring Republican Rep. Pete Olson. 

Asian American residents are one of the dominant immigrant groups in the region, and a target for national Democrats like Meng and the ASPIRE PAC, which promotes Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders running for Congress. In 2018, this coalition helped bring Democratic challenger Sri Preston Kulkarni, an Indian American candidate and former adviser to New York Democratic Sen. Kirstin Gillibrand, within 5 percentage points of unseating Olson.

Kulkarni won the Democratic primary for Olson’s open seat in March and will face the winner of a May 26 Republican runoff. 

The fight for Florida

Maria Alegria Rodriguez, executive director of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, often stakes out shopping malls in Jamaican and Haitian locales and coordinates with churches and workers’ unions. She and her colleagues seek out immigrants where they live and work and help put them on the path to citizenship.

“Naturalization is part of that civic engagement continuum,” she says.

Come November, naturalized citizens may have their biggest impact in her state, and in South Florida in particular. The Miami-Dade County area has three of the five congressional districts most populated by naturalized citizens. According to Census Bureau data, districts 25, 26 and 27 each had more than 200,000 naturalized citizens in 2018, when two of those districts flipped Democratic.

In 2016, Donald Trump won Florida by 112,911 votes. According to NPNA, Florida will have recorded an estimated 363,761 naturalizations since 2017 by the end of the year, with more than 103,000 in 2020 so far.

While South Florida has long been a hub for Cuban Americans, it increasingly includes other nationalities, such as Colombians, Haitians, Jamaicans and Venezuelans. How these subgroups vote depends on several factors — including race, age, socio-economic status and religious background. 

State voter data shows that the three Florida counties with the largest number of naturalized citizens — and some of the greatest population growth since the 2016 election — added about 70,000 registered voters since 2016. Most of the new voters registered in the Democratic Party or as unaffiliated.

A poll released March 16 by Univision News and Latino Decisions, a political opinion research group, found that health care costs were the top issue among Florida voters registered in the primaries. The issue was No. 1 for the Latino subset of this group as well. But while border security was No. 2 among the Florida registered voters overall, it wasn’t even in the top five for Latino registered voters in the state. Given the coronavirus pandemic, the importance of the health care issue for voters is likely to become even more acute come November.

The poll also found that Trump had just a slight edge statewide, with 48 percent of Florida registered voters supporting him. However, only 45 percent of Latino registered voters did so. Among registered Democrats who identified as Cuban, support was roughly split between the two front-runners at the time: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.

These results show that Florida’s fast-changing voter demographics create dynamics a lot more complex than often thought.

“The Latino vote is not given, it is not automatic,” says Matt Barreto, co-founder of Latino Decisions. “This is a community that has not historically received much outreach, and while outreach has been increasing there is still work to be done. We also know this is a state that Trump will be focusing on, so it will certainly be important that the Democratic Party needs to be well organized if they want to get the turnout they need to win.”

On immigration, for example, many Florida voters of immigrant backgrounds may actually favor lowering levels since they themselves immigrated legally, says Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio.

“I think there’s a big misconception out there that, in communities made up of first-generation Americans and naturalized citizens, there’s somehow a disproportionate amount of support for immigration that either flows through and comes here illegally or places a burden on the country, and I found in many cases the opposite to be true,” says Rubio, a Cuban American.

“One of the most ironic things is you run into somebody who’s very strongly against illegal immigration, but they know someone at church who they hope can stay.”

Other Republicans, like Florida Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, argue that the economy under Trump grew rapidly until the coronavirus outbreak, lifting Latino communities with historic employment levels. Diaz-Balart also wonders whether the Democratic presidential field tilted too far left to stay palatable for many Hispanic voters — especially those who fled oppressive left-wing regimes back home.

“In South Florida, socialism doesn’t play,” he says.

There’s even further splintering within the Cuban American community, according to a 2018 Florida International University poll showing stark generational divides. More than 70 percent of Cubans who emigrated before 1980 registered as Republicans, a number that drops below 40 percent for those who emigrated after 1995. Age and race in this subset of voters also inform those preferences in complicated ways.

Democratic Rep. Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, whose Florida district is about half Cuban American, argues that economic conditions and Trump’s immigration policies may outstrip other concerns at the ballot box. While many naturalized citizens in working class areas have jobs, their wages have stagnated.

“They can’t pay for their housing, they can’t pay for transportation costs, they can’t pay for prescription drug costs. … They haven’t seen any relief for the costs of living in South Florida,” Mucarsel-Powell says. “I do think for those families, a lot of whom live in my district, are not going to buy the idea that the economy is working for everyone.”

Mucarsel-Powell also notes that her constituents had a visceral reaction to the “temporary influx facility” that housed unaccompanied and separated immigrant children in Homestead — located in the heart of her district. The facility became a symbol of a broad swath of Trump’s immigration policies and a huge bone of contention in congressional budget negotiations. After sustained citizen protests and multiple trips by Democratic lawmakers and presidential candidates, the administration emptied the facility last August.  

Former Florida Rep. Carlos Curbelo, the Republican who lost to Mucarsel-Powell by about 4,000 votes in 2018, concedes that some of the president’s rhetoric and policy on immigration have complicated the picture.

“One of the things that has attracted so many people to our country is the inclusiveness of our society and the unifying aspirational nature of a lot of our leaders, and this president has adopted more of a divide-and-conquer strategy,” Curbelo says.

But he warns that just opposing Trump’s policies won’t win over naturalized citizens.

“Democrats for a long time have just assumed immigrant communities will support them because they are not Republicans,” Curbelo says.

Jayapal agrees that her party should not take this part of the electorate for granted, a mistake she says Democrats have made for too long.

“I don’t blame people for not voting or for feeling like their voice is not heard,” she says. “I blame us for not really making it clear what’s at stake and reaching out to them with answers to the concerns that they have.”

Predictions that demographics favor Democrats often fail to take into account systemic barriers to naturalization and voting, changing demographic categories and self-identification, and new circumstances — such as the ongoing pandemic — that may influence people’s votes. Naturalized citizens represent growing groups of voters with varied interests and potential policy needs, which DeSipio says campaigns are only just starting to tap.

“It is to both parties’ advantage to make some concerted investments early there,” he says.