Written by John Oliver Santiago, VoiceWaves Journalist.
A young girl looks on as her mother works to fill out a citizenship application. Photo by John Oliver Santiago.
On March 31, 2012, Centro C.H.A. held its annual Cesar Chavez Day celebration called “A Day of Service.” In celebrating Cesar Chavez’s work, and in conjunction with the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund, Centro C.H.A. hosted a citizenship workshop alongside its festival at Cesar Chavez Park. A devoted group of volunteers came together to help families naturalize and affirm their right to vote.
The target groups of the workshop were naturalized residents preparing to go through the last step of immigration: applying for citizenship. After a five-year period or residency, residents are eligible to apply for citizenship. The workshop ranged from filling out applications and taking passport photos, and featured quality control by pro-bono lawyers who were volunteering their time. When asked about the goal of the event, Lizette Escobedo said, “It’s to get as many people as possible to initiate the citizenship process. And our main focus is specifically to get them through the citizenship process and make sure that they register and vote. Our ultimate goal is to ensure a higher turnout of the Latino participation, not only in the voting but in the full cycle of civic engagement as well.”
The PEW Hispanic Center found that Latinos as a group represented 6.9% of the voter population during the 2010 midterm elections, up from 5.8% in 2006. Coincidentally, the number of Latino U.S. citizens who are eligible to vote grew from 13.2 million in 2006 to 21.3 million in 2010.
The Census, however, found worrying conclusions in a study looking at voter trends between naturalized and native citizens from 1996 to 2006. Within that period, naturalized citizens were statistically less likely to register and vote as oppose to native citizens. The study found in the final year, “In 2006, naturalized citizens were 52% less likely to register and 42% less likely to vote compared to native citizens.”
There are many ways to explain this lack of civic engagement. One factor that can be attributed is a possible lack of political efficacy within the constituency. Long Beach City College Political Science Professor Paul Savoie comments, “For any group to feel politically efficacious, they must feel that their votes matter and that their opinions can be heard.” Although a single vote seems as inconsequential as a whimper, a bloc of 21.3 million votes is a very loud roar. The idea of a Latino voting bloc doesn’t really manifest itself unless the topic at hand is immigration, but even this is a topic that can prove divisive between Latino Americans.
The Latino bloc can range from the barrios of Los Angeles to the conservatism of Latino Floridians. And taking into account different generations that come from different immigration cycles (pre- and post-1980’s amnesty), the only real rallying point of the Latino vote is immigration. Take into account Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV). In 2010, he faced steeped competition in the Tea Party-backed Sharron Angle. His victory in Nevada was a tough battle, but his support for the DREAM Act and attempts to include it into a military spending bill was enough to sway the 12.4% of voters in Nevada who were Latino.
The NALEO Educational Fund is supporting Centro C.H.A.’s local efforts to curb these trends. The Latino bloc is near mythical, as their population continues to grow and their demands as well. A naturalized citizen and mother of two, Hilda Lopez, brought her daughters to the citizenship workshop in hopes that their citizenship applications could be pushed through. Although she speaks minimal English, when asked why she has voted in the past and why she’ll vote in the future she said (in Spanish), “Because the Hispanic people want improvements. The voice of Hispanic people needs to be heard, since the population has the power.”