A key factor in a Barack Obama victory in Colorado, New Mexico, or Nevada will be his ability to turn out Latino voters. Though John McCain may be the best-positioned Republican in terms of appeal to Latinos -- he has championed comprehensive immigration reform in the past and is a familiar face from a Southwest state -- they will continue to be a disproportionately Democratic bloc.
One segment of the Latino population specifically targeted in registration drives is newly naturalized citizens. Grace Lopez Ramirez, director of the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota, said new citizens are excited about voting for the first time and serve as effective and enthusiastic ambassadors to the broader Latino community. At a naturalization ceremony in May -- the largest-ever in Denver's history -- Ramirez's group registered 500 people in one hour. Though the number of newly naturalized citizens in any given year may seem small, taken across an election cycle it adds up: more than 27,000 people have become citizens in Colorado since the 2004 election.
Mi Familia Vota and other community groups may be focusing on registration in the run up to the election, but they were part of a broader campaign -- Ya Es Hora ¡Ciudadania! -- that began pushing for eligible people to apply for citizenship starting in January 2007. Thanks in part to the campaign, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services reported receiving 1.4 million citizenship applications in FY2007, which ended September 30 -- nearly twice the number received in FY2006 and the highest number in more than a decade. In July 2007 alone, 460,000 applications were received, tripling the previous single-month record.
Since the Latino population is younger and has a higher percentage of non-citizens than the total population, the Latino electorate doesn't wield the full power of the Latino population. Nothing can be done about the relative youth other than waiting for voters to come of age, but Anna Sampaoi, a political science professor at the University of Colorado in Denver, said that groups can and should encourage some of the estimated 8 million people (with more than 30 percent from Mexico alone) eligible for citizenship to apply. Sampaoi serves on the board of Denver-based Latina Initiative, a group that was part of the Ya Es Hora campaign and continues to offer citizenship workshops.
Studies have shown that naturalized citizens, taken as a whole including those who have been naturalized for decades, are no more likely to turn out than native-born citizens and may in fact turn out in lower numbers. But Sampaoi said voters casting their first ballots this year will likely become high propensity voters if the energy and level of engagement seen in campaign 2008 can be sustained.
"This campaign is a great time to be coming of age in terms of politics, whether you're young or newly naturalized, because the motivation and interest levels are very high," she said.
At a naturalization ceremony in Denver last week, a number of new citizens expressed their thoughts on the election. Not all were Latino, and not all had made up their mind; all but one were at least leaning toward voting for Obama. The lone McCain supporter emigrated from Scotland.
Efrain Salinas, 24 years in United States, from Mexico
Natalia, 10 years in United States, from Argentina
Peter Gray, 11 years in United States, from Scotland
Ezequiel Gonzalez, 9 years in United States, from Mexico
Raquel Ochoa, 7 years in United States, from Mexico
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