Nation of immigrants shapes 2008 election

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Observer Staff
March 19, 2008

Today’s foreign-born citizen faces an array of choices when deciding how they will award their highly desirable vote. Candidates can be seen courting the foreign-born vote by the Spanish-language sites devoted to John McCain and Hillary Clinton, and the translation of Barack Obama’s detailed policy briefings into Korean, Mandarin and Vietnamese.

More than 15 million Americans are foreign-born naturalized citizens, the majority of them concentrated in the delegate-rich states of California, New York and Texas. With today’s booming immigrant population, even key swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio have increased foreign-born voting populations. According to the Migration Policy Institute, a non-profit group that studies world migration, immigrant voting in these two bell-weather states has increased by 23 and 13 percent respectively.

But bringing a global perspective to the American electoral process has its pitfalls.

Barack Obama had a rally at American University on Jan. 28.
Observer photo by Federica Valabrega.

Numerous immigrant communities across the country have launched initiatives to educate and inform their new voters, while trying to protecting them from the very real threat of election-day intimidation and language barriers. Hundreds of thousands of potential citizens are currently mired in an unprecedented naturalization backlog, waiting on a bureaucracy that does not have the money or the manpower to make their votes count.

“It’s going to make a difference in that lots of people who are making an effort to be voters in November won’t be able to be,” said Douglas Rivlin, a spokesman for the National Immigration Forum, a D.C.-based advocacy group.

Naturalization fees more than tripled last July, sparking a bump in thousands of citizenship applications in the months beforehand. More than a million applications were received in the first ten months of 2007 alone, according to the Citizenship, It’s Time! Campaign.

Rivlin said that there is almost always a backlog of applications, particularly in election years, but that this year is special. “It has lengthened incredibly and even without the fee increase, if the fee had stayed the same, you would still see a spike in applications because there has been a sustained attack against immigrants and immigration over the last couple of years,” he said.

The charged political atmosphere and the lack of resolution regarding immigration reform create a difficult situation for foreign-born voters. Many immigrant groups are “values” voters, traditionally allied with the Republican Party on matters of gay marriage and abortion. In 2000 and 2004, Latinos responded to well-orchestrated campaigns on Spanish-language television, overwhelmingly voting for George W. Bush.

But a December 2007 PEW Hispanic Center survey found 57 percent of registered Hispanic voters now identify themselves as Democrats, a change of 33 points in the past seven years.

“There is an editorial that is an hour-long on CNN every single day with Lou Dobbs saying that these people are coming to take over our country … and Latinos are responding to that by saying ‘No, that is just not true and we’re going to vote, we’re going to stand up to this,” said Rivilin.

Unfortunately, even naturalization and voter mobilization can only go so far. Some of the biggest challenges facing foreign-born voters occur during their first trip to the polls, as they negotiate the complexities of electoral politics.

Hun Joo Lee of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium noted that their Super Tuesday hotline received more than 800 calls for assistance.

“It can be everything from helping them find their polling place online to the many who called and said that their names were not on the voting list. We would call LA county on their behalf and ask what was going on with their status. We explain to them that they can do provisional ballots, which many of them did not know they could do,” said Hun.

For Michele Lawrence Jawando, policy counsel for People for the American Way, provisional ballots represent the potential for all that can go wrong for foreign-born voters on election day.

“One of our concerns is that if you are a language minority and you are walking into a polling place, maybe your English isn’t as good as you might think and you’re having problems communicating with that poll worker, that poll worker’s first thought may be ‘I don’t really know if this person is a citizen or not,’” said Jawando.

“Instead of checking through the books and making sure that they’re not on the voter lists, the default may be ‘OK, you can’t vote or you have to vote provisionally’,” Jawando continued.

Campaigns try to reach as much immigrant groups as possible. Photos courtesy of Obama’s campaign, Hillary’s campaign and Voto Latino.

Provisional ballots have a larger margin of error as they need to be cross-referenced with voters lists and are often not included in the final vote counts until days or even a week later. The average age of poll workers in the United States is 73. Jawando says that her organization and many others work to recruit younger poll workers and to increase poll worker training so that these problems do not reoccur.

“It’s a matter of education, it’s a matter of poll worker training and voter education, making sure that voters know what their rights are going into the polls, knowing that they can ask for help from one of the poll workers if they are having a problem,” said Jawando.

While the number of foreign-born voters has not yet caught up with their proportion of the electorate, interest is growing, according to the Mobilize the Immigrant Vote campaign.

“In the big gateway cities like Chicago, New York and Los Angeles, where the big immigrant communities who have been here longer and who have created the non-governmental organizations and political structures, you’re seeing a lot of cross-ethnic political cooperation, with Los Angeles being the best example of that,” said Rivlin.

“You have not just different nationalities among Latinos working together but also the Korean-American community and the growing African Community, you’re seeing those types of banding together everywhere,” he continued.

Hung Joo Lee recalls registering new citizens as they leave their naturalization ceremony.

“You celebrate the amazing achievement of becoming a citizen of the United States of America with them and then we tell them, ‘You know, now you’re a citizen and one of the greatest privileges is voting and making an impact on government and having your voices heard’ and they get very excited by that.”

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