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Voter Registration: Naturalization Push Ahead Of November Election

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In this March 16, 2012, photo, Martha Estrella and other immigrants attend an American history and civic classes in Chelsea, Mass., as they prepare to take the naturalization test. (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi)
In this March 16, 2012, photo, Martha Estrella and other immigrants attend an American history and civic classes in Chelsea, Mass., as they prepare to take the naturalization test. (AP Photo/Rodrique Ngowi)

By RODRIQUE NGOWI, ASSOCIATED PRESS

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. -- A coalition of groups supporting immigrants has recruited teams of volunteers to help push programs they hope will add thousands of new U.S. citizens to the voter rolls in several states in time for the November presidential election.

The national push comes after Democratic President Barack Obama has failed to deliver on promised immigration reforms in his first years in office and his likely opponent, Mitt Romney, adopted harsh rhetoric on undocumented immigration to win support from conservatives while campaigning for the GOP nomination.

The Department of Homeland Security says an estimated 12.6 million people were holding so-called green cards given to legal permanent U.S. residents in 2010, including 8.1 million people who already qualify for naturalization but have not applied for citizenship. Latinos, considered a Democratic-leaning constituency, account for the largest immigrant community.

Immigrants and other minority voters helped Obama to a comfortable win over Republican John McCain in the 2008 presidential election.

"The fastest growing segment of the American electorate is the Latino vote, and within Latinos, we are seeing very rapid growth of immigrant voters," said Matt Barreto, a political science professor at the University of Washington. "In the 2012 election there is no doubt that the immigrant community will be incredibly relevant."

The "Become a Citizen Now!" campaign began in March, hoping to help 5,000 immigrants complete the daunting application process to become citizens and register to vote. It is targeting foreign-born residents who have been in the country long enough to qualify for naturalization in Massachusetts, New York, California, Florida, Maryland, Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Tennessee, Illinois, Wisconsin and New Hampshire. Nearly 500 citizenship applications have been completed so far.

Yenith Berrio, a 40-year-old Colombian citizen who has spent half of her life living in the United States, is preparing for her naturalization test and looks forward to becoming a U.S. citizen and registered voter.

The Boston resident said the right to vote allows her to participate in a process that affects her and her family. She said the U.S. is a better place for her and her children who "are happier right here and could get much better education here."

It typically takes just over five months to acquire citizenship.

"Those immigrants that apply for their citizenship before the end of April are likely to be able to vote in this election in November," said Josh Hoyt, a co-chair of the National Partnership for New Americans.

A separate push by the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, seeks to register 180,000 Latinos to vote nationwide. Organizers say the initiative already has registered more than 10,000 voters. The group is conducting the campaign in Florida, Nevada, Colorado, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, California, Texas, North Carolina and online.

When immigrants register, they generally show up to vote. More than 89 percent of registered foreign-born Americans cast ballots in 2008, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

And their share among voters is growing. Among all voters who cast ballots in the 1996 presidential election, 4.1 percent were foreign-born, according to Pew. Eight years later in 2008, the percentage rose to 6.3.

While Immigrants have historically supported candidates in both major political parties, there's been a recent shift toward Democrats, said Manuel Pastor, director of the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California.

"There has been sort of a noticeable spin in the last couple of elections toward the Democratic party – but it seems mostly because of the way most of the Republican Party has moved right on immigration and the impact that has on the perception of new immigrant voters." Pastor said.

Romney has staked out a tough stance on immigration. He favors a U.S.-Mexico border fence, opposes education benefits to undocumented immigrants and says he would veto the Dream Act, which would allow some undocumented immigrant youths to earn permanent residency and eventually citizenship if they attend college or serve in the military.

Obama had promised during his 2008 campaign to press for a comprehensive immigration policy overhaul that would include providing a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants. Yet, more than three years into his term, he has failed to deliver, blaming fiercely divided congressional Republicans who he says are unwilling to work on the issue.

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