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Citizenship Campaign Shifts to Latino Voter Registration, Turnout

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The following piece is published on Colorado Confidential as well as HuffPost's OffTheBus.

By Kate Bernuth

On the heels of a citizenship campaign that helped one million Latinos begin the naturalization process, the same coalition is launching a massive get-out-the-vote effort aimed at Latinos in Colorado and other Southwestern states seen as key to deciding the 2008 presidential election.

"Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos!"

Today we march, tomorrow we vote. That was the rallying cry for millions of people who took to the streets in nationwide immigrant-rights marches in early 2006. The demonstrations -- including one in Denver on May 1, 2006, that drew 40,000 participants -- were sparked by an immigration reform proposal that would have made it a felony to be in the U.S. illegally.

The demonstrations, in turn, ignited a movement for civic education and voter mobilization in Latino communities across the nation. Ya es Hora ¡Cuidadanía! (It's Time - Citizenship!), a campaign to help Latinos with legal permanent resident status apply for citizenship, was launched in January 2007. In workshops nationwide, volunteers and immigration attorneys helped people prepare the N-400 citizenship application before the fee went up at the end of July.

The success of the Ya es Hora citizenship campaign, which organizers estimate has helped one million legal permanent residents apply for naturalization in 2007, spawned the creation of a new mass mobilization, this time to increase Latino voter registration and turnout in the 2008 elections -- particularly in Southwestern swing states, including Colorado.

The Ya es Hora ¡Ve y Vota! (It's Time - Go Vote!) campaign was announced yesterday in Washington by coalition partners, which include the National Council of La Raza, the Mi Familia Vota Educational Fund and various Spanish-language media companies.

The citizenship workshops will continue but the primary focus of the campaign will be to encourage the 44 million Latinos in the U.S. to effect change at the ballot in 2008.

"The emergence of key battleground states in the Southwest and Florida will give 2.2 million registered Latino voters a particularly decisive role in shaping our political future," said Eliseo Medina, executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union and treasurer of Mi Familia Vota.

Nationwide, applications for citizenship climbed steadily in the months leading up to July 2007 when the fee increased from $400 to $675. The number of applications dropped following the fee hike, but the number of N-400 citizenship applications received by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was still 34 percent higher in September 2007 than in September 2006.

This year in Colorado, the number of successful citizenship applications that ended in oath ceremonies jumped from 670 in July to 745 in August.

Grace Lopez, the director of the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota, says that since the fee hike, fewer people are calling for information about the naturalization application. But she still gets calls every day from legal permanent residents who are interested in becoming citizens.

"It was clear that there was a need to continue the work," Lopez said. "We see people who have been legal permanent residents for 30 years who have started coming to citizenship classes. Given the immigration debate and the political atmosphere, they feel it's time to become a citizen."

In addition to continued citizenship workshops around the country, phase two of the Ya es Hora campaign will encompass grassroots, print and broadcast outreach efforts to encourage eligible Latinos to register and cast a ballot in the 2008 elections.

Spanish-language media giants like Univision and Entravision will contribute public-service announcements, and there is a website and toll-free number with information about the electoral process in Spanish. In 11 states considered key to deciding the 2008 presidential election -- including Colorado -- organizers will initiate direct contact with eligible Latino voters through canvassing and community forums.

"There is always an interest in the Latino community to be a part of the American Dream and to be a part of their communities," Lopez said. "But when those huge rallies happened a year and a half ago, I think people were really spurred into action. There is a lot more activity now because of that mobilization. I think it was really energizing."