Paper Jam May Curb Latino Vote


By: Wall Street Journal

Citizenship Drive Drew More Applications Than U.S. Can Process
By MIRIAM JORDAN

LOS ANGELES — Hundreds of thousands of Hispanics who responded to a massive campaign to seek citizenship and vote in 2008 have created a backlog of applications that the government has indicated it can’t process before the election, undercutting the voting power of Latinos.

Univision, the largest Spanish-language network in the U.S., launched the campaign last year along with Spanish-language newspapers and Latino grass-roots groups. With the slogan, “Ya Es Hora! Ciudadania!” (It’s About Time! Citizenship!), the campaign was integrated into local newscasts and aired in public-service announcements throughout the day in cities across the country.

Nearly 1.2 million green-card holders, the vast majority Latino, applied to become naturalized citizens in 2007, surpassing the campaign’s target of one million. All told, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services received 1.4 million applications for naturalization in the fiscal year ended October 2007, nearly double the volume received for the previous fiscal year. In June and July alone, the volume of applications jumped 360% relative to the same months in 2006.

Many applicants were motivated by a desire to participate in the political process amid a rancorous national debate over immigration. Anticipation of a fee increase for the naturalization application, to $675 from $400, was also a factor. But the immigration agency hadn’t anticipated the “avalanche” of applications that ensued, according to a USCIS spokesman. Legal residents who applied midyear are likely to wait 18 months before their forms are processed; the average processing time is normally six months. Applications are processed on a first-come, first-served basis.

The processing jam stands to damp the electoral potential of Hispanics, a bloc that has become more politically active, as seen two years ago at massive street protests over immigration legislation. Hispanics represent a crucial constituency in states such as Florida, Arizona and Nevada.

At a hearing yesterday of the House Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration, USCIS Director Emilio Gonzalez outlined how the agency aimed to address the backlog by adding staff. However, Mr. Gonzalez made no commitment that increased staffing would significantly reduce the time it took to process applications. “This surge [in applications] will have a serious impact on application processing times for the next couple of years,” he said.

He said the agency couldn’t jeopardize national security or the integrity of the process. Hiring, training and obtaining security clearance for immigration employees takes months. The agency’s pending naturalization applications stood at nearly 927,000 in October 2007, a 92% increase from the end of the previous fiscal year in October 2006.

Latino groups and unions involved in the citizenship drive say they first notified the government of their plans to encourage increased Hispanic citizenship in November 2006. More recently, the advocacy groups have urged the government to expedite processing to ensure that all qualified applicants who filed last year are sworn in as U.S. citizens by July 4.

“The price of USCIS’s failed leadership and poor planning is the disenfranchisement of those immigrants who have played by the rules,” said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, one of the groups that spearheaded the campaign.

In recent years, USCIS has faced criticism for delays in processing applications involving naturalization and worker and family visas. Its challenges are exacerbated by mandatory background checks by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in which all applicants’ names are run through several databases to ensure they don’t have a criminal background or are otherwise ineligible for naturalization.

Nearly nine million green-card holders, or legal permanent residents, are eligible to become U.S. citizens. About 55% are immigrants of Latin American origin. A desire to have a greater say in the debate over immigrants’ rights is likely to push more Latinos to participate in this election. “Latino newcomers see naturalization as a critical step toward making their voices heard in our national debate on immigration,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, NALEO, in his testimony yesterday.

In response, a USCIS spokesman later said “the agency is committed to ensuring fair and professional service to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who seek our services every month.”

Hispanics responded strongly to the public-service campaign, queuing up to fill out citizenship forms at churches, community centers and other places across the country. With lines wrapping around entire blocks in cities like Los Angeles, hundreds of people were turned away and asked to return another day. A hotline established by NALEO was flooded with calls.

Miguel Quintero, a roofer who queued up to apply for citizenship in June, was invited to a USCIS office two months later to be fingerprinted. But, “I haven’t heard anything since,” says Mr. Quintero, who moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1972. “I want the chance to vote on things that impact my community.” Celia Amador, a retired assembly-line worker in Los Angeles, said that she is worried that she won’t get her citizenship in time for the election. “What I most want is to cast a vote,” she said.

In most states, deadlines for registering to vote are between 21 to 30 days prior to the election. Newly naturalized citizens can register as late as seven days before the vote in California and 10 days in New York.

There were 9.3 million Hispanics registered to vote in the last presidential election. NALEO projects that, as of this year’s general election, there will be at least 11.3 million registered. It expects at least 9.2 million will cast ballots, up from 7.6 million in 2004, due to the mobilizing impact of the immigration debate, the vigorous efforts by parties and candidates to reach Latinos, and the initiatives of non-partisan groups to energize Latino voters.

The Univision-led drive to engage Hispanics in civic life moved recently into its next phase ahead of the primaries. Called “Ve Y Vota” (Go and Vote), it seeks to encourage Hispanics who are already citizens to register to vote and turn out at the polls. To facilitate that process, organizations participating in the campaign have positioned volunteers outside swearing-in ceremonies so that new citizens can immediately register to vote. A toll-free bilingual hotline provides people with ABCs of the electoral process.

Write to Miriam Jordan at miriam.jordan@wsj.com
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