Massive Citizenship Campaign Could Upend Electoral Politics

Five years ago, Colombian national Ivan Parra became a U.S. citizen. This year, he wants to help hundreds of thousands in Florida do the same. CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN
Five years ago, Colombian national Ivan Parra became a U.S. citizen. This year, he wants to help hundreds of thousands in Florida do the same. CREDIT: ALICE OLLSTEIN

BROWARD COUNTY, FLORIDA — Early Saturday morning, about 100 Cuban, Jamaican, Mexican, and Haitian immigrants lined up quietly in the parking lot of a strip mall near Fort Lauderdale. Some, anticipating a long wait, held sack lunches. Others held their young children. All had come for a single purpose: to begin the journey toward becoming a U.S. citizen.

“I want to vote. I want my voice to be heard,” said Trevor Gregory, who came from Jamaica with his parents 12 years ago. “Based on what I see going on with all the racism, all of the rallies with Donald Trump, I think it’s a good it me for me to get the process started. I think my little vote will help.” He blushed and laughed, adding, “Hopefully.”

Reports are pouring in from across the country that thousands of legal permanent residents from around the world, like Gregory, have been inspired by Trump’s rhetoric to become citizens just so they can vote against him.

Gregory is one of nearly nine million immigrant residents who is eligible to become a citizen but has yet do to so. Earlier this month, labor and immigrant rights groups have unveiled an unprecedented $15 million campaign to help as many of those people as possible become citizens and register to vote before the deadline in early October. They are focusing their efforts on the three states where there are enough new immigrant voters to tip the scales in the election: Nevada, Colorado, and Florida.

I want to vote. I want my voice to be heard.

According to the U.S. government, more than 800,000 people in Florida are immigrants eligible to become citizens, more than enough to decide an election in a swing state known for down-to-the-wire races.

On Saturday, Ivan Parra led a group of volunteers in helping 100 of those people begin the roughly three month process. The day before, the group had helped another 100 people. The next day, they helped another 50 follow up on their cases. Next weekend, they will hold a “mega-clinic” and serve 2,000 people.  Parra, who hails from Colombia, says he fully understands the barriers people face going through the process, because he did it himself five years ago.

“Many people do not understand the process. They think they have to go to a lawyer, which costs a lot of money, and they don’t have time, because they have two or three jobs,” he told ThinkProgress. “And they think they can’t afford the $680 fee, because most people in this area are minimum wage workers. They don’t know about the fee waiver, or they are too proud to use it. Some are also afraid to expose their personal information to somebody they don’t know. And the fear is real, because if they accidentally give information that is not true, that’s a crime and they could be deported.”

Now a U.S. citizen, Parra is spearheading the Florida Immigrant Coalition’s outreach efforts in diverse Broward County to help dispel these fears and give people the information they need. Knowing much of the immigrant population does not have access to television or internet, they get the word out through churches, local elected officials, small businesses. This year, he has seen a marked spike in interest.

“I always ask people why they are applying, but this year they look at me like it’s a stupid question and say, ‘Obviously because I want to vote,’” he told ThinkProgress. “There’s a new urgency. People really want to apply at this moment. They are becoming aware that they have power.”

Ileana Sardinas, who came from Cuba with her parents and siblings more than 30 years ago, is feeling that urgency.

“I don’t like all the injustices. There are a lot of ugly things happening right now,” she told ThinkProgress in Spanish as she sat with a volunteer and her brother Michael going over a pile of documents topped with a laminated card reading RESIDENT ALIEN in capital letters.

“Trump, what is he doing? He’s taking the crimes of a few and using them to punish all immigrants,” she said. “If someone does something bad, deport him. But if you have one bad apple out of five, do you throw away all five? No. You throw out the rotten one and keep the rest.”

Over three decades in the U.S., Sardinas has worked as a maid, a taxi driver, and a gym employee, and now helps care for her three grand-nieces, who she calls her “princesses.” She never attempted to become a citizen until this week, but was driven to take that step by the anti-immigrant rhetoric she has heard from Donald Trump.

“We are human. We have rights, even if we’re from another country,” she said. “Many of us came here because of necessity. Yet we Hispanics are being tossed aside by the politicians. It hurts.”

There’s a new urgency. People really want to apply at this moment.

As Trump continues his march toward the Republican nomination, groups across Florida are scrambling both to help thousands of immigrants naturalize, to register those who are already citizens, and to make sure they actually show up to vote. Tomas Kennedy, an organizer with the group the New Florida Majority, told ThinkProgress they are aiming to register 5,000 voters every nine weeks.

“We’re going to African-American areas, Latino areas, areas where there’s traditionally low turnout in the elections,” he explained. “We’re targeting those people and trying to empower them and educate them on the issues.”

“Hopefully Florida makes the right choice for the third time in a row,” he added, referring to President Obama winning the state in 2008 and 2012.

In Tuesday’s presidential primary in Florida, Kennedy will be voting for the first time in his life. An Argentine national who fled the county’s economic crisis with his family in 2000, he recently became a citizen through marriage, but his parents are still undocumented. He told ThinkProgress that the GOP’s rejection of immigration reform and calls for border walls and mass deportations will not only hurt them in November, but for decades to come.  “As an immigrant youth — and there are thousands and thousands like me — we are never going to forget how we were treated [by the GOP] and we are always going to vote against those people,” he said.