Colorado’s new citizens wield growing electoral power

Nearly 60,000 immigrants naturalized since 2014, report says

naturalized citizen
Heivan Garcia of Avon, who immigrated to the United States from Mexico, stands with an American flag Sept. 16, 2020, the day of his naturalization ceremony at Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction. (Courtesy of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)

In Colorado alone, an estimated 59,806 people will have become naturalized U.S. citizens from 2014 through 2020. They represent a significant enough portion of the electorate to potentially shape the results of Colorado’s upcoming U.S. Senate race and other statewide elections.

Those findings come from a new report from the National Partnership for New Americans, a national coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations.

“Today, naturalized citizens comprise one in 10 eligible voters in the United States,” Nancy Flores, NPNA’s deputy director, said at a virtual news conference Oct. 8 announcing the report’s release. “This shows a doubling of the immigrant electorate since the year 2000.”

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Those newly eligible voters could make a big difference if they show up to the polls this year. But immigrants have, in past years, been overall less likely to vote than the general population. Advocacy groups such as NPNA and its Colorado member, the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, seek to buck that trend by reaching out to voters and encouraging them to emphasize the importance of voting to their own communities.

“Research shows that naturalized citizens are not just growing in port of entry states like California or New York or Florida, but they’re also growing in battleground states such as Colorado,” Flores said.

The number of new citizens in Colorado exceeds the margin of victory in the 2014 U.S. Senate race, in which Republican Cory Gardner unseated then-Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat. Just under 40,000 more votes were cast for Gardner than Udall, according to final results published by the secretary of state’s office.

NPNA’s report uses naturalization data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services for fiscal years 2014 through 2018 and approvals of naturalization applications in fiscal year 2019. Naturalizations for 2020 are estimated using data from 2016, before that year’s presidential election.

Overall turnout rates lower for immigrants

A separate report from Pew Research Center, published in February, found that in 2016, 62% of U.S.-born eligible voters cast a vote, compared with 54% of foreign-born voters.

“However, this voter turnout pattern is reversed among racial and ethnic groups with the largest numbers of immigrants,” the report noted. “Among Hispanic eligible voters in 2016, about half (53%) of immigrants voted, compared with 46% of the U.S. born, a pattern that has persisted since 2000.”

naturalization ceremony
During a Sept. 16, 2020, naturalization ceremony at Colorado National Monument near Grand Junction, 10 people take the oath of U.S. citizenship. (Courtesy U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services)

In 2016, 52% of Asian immigrants voted, compared with 45% of U.S.-born Asian people. Among Black eligible voters, the voter turnout rate for immigrants was similar to that of the U.S. born. For white eligible voters, U.S.-born people outpaced foreign-born eligible voters “with the gap widening since the 1990s,” the report said.

A Newsline analysis of census data found that in the last three federal elections, among all eligible Colorado voters, white non-Hispanic people were about 40% more likely to cast their ballot than Black, Latino, Asian-American and Indigenous people.

Over the past four years, President Donald Trump’s administration has instituted controversial policy changes to both legal and illegal immigration. Trump has called for a fully funded southern border wall. His administration stopped processing new applications for the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and overhauled portions of the green card approval process.

The 2020 election represents an opportunity for immigrants to make their voices heard on controversial immigration policies enacted by the Trump administration, said Cristina Uribe Reyes, an immigration attorney and newly naturalized citizen who spoke at the NPNA news conference.

“I came to the USA when I was 2, and I grew up as an undocumented immigrant until about six years ago, when I was able to obtain my legal permanent residence,” Uribe Reyes said. “2020 will be my first time voting in a presidential election. I feel honored to finally have this right, but I also feel an immense sense of responsibility.”

She said voting wasn’t just about herself, but an action on behalf of family members and friends, plus the “countless clients and future clients who have been so brutally impacted by these immigration policy changes in the last four years.”

Pandemic-caused delays or voter suppression?

The report also calls out the current backlog of naturalization applications at USCIS, labeling it an “emerging form of voter suppression.” Federally, 700,000 applications are pending at USCIS, including nearly 7,000 in Colorado.

Due to the pandemic, USCIS field officers are interviewing applications at a lower rate than normal, according to a statement attributed to USCIS spokesperson Dan Hetlage and provided by USCIS’ field office in Denver.

naturalization ceremony
A naturalization ceremony is held in the parking lot of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ Denver Field Office on July 31, 2020. (Courtesy USCIS)

“We are working to increase the number of interviews we can complete in a safe manner, but it will take time before we can reach pre-March levels,” Hetlage said. “Focusing on the number of people currently waiting to naturalize, just months before the election is, at best, an incomplete way of assessing our performance in the naturalization program. The women and men of USCIS proudly naturalize thousands of potential new voters on a daily basis whether it is an election year or not.”

Hetlage also noted that in 2019, USCIS naturalized 834,000 new citizens, the highest number in 11 years. Nationally, the 110,000 people whose ceremonies were put on hold early in the pandemic have all since been naturalized.

“While the COVID-19 global pandemic caused delays in processing naturalizations earlier this year, the USCIS workforce dedicated itself to clearing those backlogs and conducting naturalization ceremonies as circumstances and social distancing allowed,” Hetlage said.

NPNA’s report also points out that Denver’s processing time of 8.5 to 12.5 months for naturalization applications exceeds the national average of nine months.

  The backlogs and processing delays at USCIS will effectively prevent immigrants who are eligible for citizenship from naturalizing in time to register to vote in November.   -NPNA's New American Voters 2020 report

“The backlogs and processing delays at USCIS will effectively prevent immigrants who are eligible for citizenship from naturalizing in time to register to vote in November, despite in some cases immigrants applying over a year prior to the elections,” the report said.

The 8.5 to 12.5-month processing time applies to 50% to 95% of naturalization applications, according to statistics from USCIS’ Denver Field Office. On average, the Denver Field Office took 5.8 months to process applications before pandemic shutdowns, and was on track to decrease that average to 5.5 months before November.

In Denver, USCIS has conducted more than 3,000 naturalization interviews since reopening to the public in June. Between Aug. 3 and Election Day, the Denver Field Office estimates it will be able to conduct interviews for 65% of those who were awaiting an interview as of July 31, amounting to an additional 4,250 naturalization interviews.

Colorado immigrants could impact election

According to a December survey by Pew Research Center, 53% of responding Hispanic immigrants who are eligible to vote, identify with or lean towards the Democratic Party, while 39% say the same about the Republican Party.

But the immigrant population isn’t a monolith, and recent data on party affiliation among naturalized citizens isn’t available.

In Colorado, about 36% of people naturalized between 2014 and 2018 come from Latin American countries, according to NPNA’s report. Another 27% are Asian American or Pacific Islander, 18% are European and 13% are African.

The highest number of newly naturalized citizens in Colorado come from Mexico, followed by Ethiopia, India, Vietnam and China, according to NPNA’s report. Approximately one quarter of Colorado’s 224,000 naturalized citizens — who comprise just under 3% of the state’s population — gained citizenship since 2014.

Arapahoe County is home to the highest number of naturalized citizens in Colorado, followed by Denver, El Paso, Adams and Jefferson counties, according to the report.

Under NPNA’s New American Voters Impact Model, Colorado ranks 12th among states where new citizens can have the greatest influence in the 2020 election, according to the report. That model is based on factors including the state’s margin of victory in the 2016 presidential election and previous three presidential elections; plus “the number and concentration of new citizens in the state; and the occurrence of a senatorial, gubernatorial, or state legislative election and their competitiveness.”

Some recent polls have predicted Hickenlooper unseating Gardner by single-digit margins in November.

On immigration, Gardner often seeks to portray himself as an advocate for bipartisan immigration reform, while Hickenlooper tries to connect Gardner with Trump’s more controversial policies.

CIRC Action Fund, the lobbying arm of CIRC, has endorsed Hickenlooper.

“We’re less than a month away, and this is the election of our lifetimes,” Ian Pham, CIRC Action Fund’s communications and development manager, said during the news conference. “The anti-immigrant climate in this country, far from deterring communities, has actually become their driving force to obtain citizenship.”

CIRC Action Fund’s goal is to make 1 million contact attempts to voters of color this election cycle through texting and phone banking, Pham said.

That includes “making sure they’re up to date on their voter registration and that they have a plan to vote this year, safely,” he explained. “We’re also talking to folks about the power of their vote, because if we get out and vote, we can make sure that the voices of our communities are heard.”