Newly naturalized citizens could sway the outcome of this years’ presidential, senatorial, and gubernatorial elections, according to a new report by the National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA). It says 5 million people across the country have become new citizens since 2014, with 3 million becoming citizens since Donald Trump’s election. New Mexico ranks 15th as the state in which new citizens can have the greatest influence in 2020 elections. But New Mexico residents wanting to become citizens face many hurdles, including language and cost barriers.
Juana Santos stays busy at her home in Barelas near Downtown Albuquerque. Last Saturday she was hanging laundry, cooking lunch, and tending to her two grandsons with their online classes. Since moving here from Peru in 2014, she has gotten involved with local immigrant organizations where she worked on promoting census participations and hands out food. She says families have been working hard, paying taxes, but are still going hungry during the pandemic. She attributes that to the lack of government support for undocumented workers.
“We are impacted by our current government. One, because of so many deportations, and because [Trump] said he will take away health insurance from I don’t know how many million people," said Santos. "Immigrants are suffering because they don’t receive benefits but they still pay a lot of taxes.”
Santos said she fears what might happen if Trump stays in office.
“How good it would be to see a change of administration away from the current president. But if that doesn’t happen, what if we still have him as our president? What would we do? May god bless this country," said Santos.
Santos said she really wants to be able to vote, but can’t pass the citizenship test because she doesn’t speak English. The government allows people 55 and older to take the test in their native language after they’ve been permanent residents for at least 15 years. For 77-year-old Santos, that means waiting almost another decade.
"I think it is unfair for older people. I mean, who knows when we will pass from this world to the other, right?”
María Teresa Herrera Bustamante is an educator with Catholic Charities in Albuquerque, helping Spanish-speakers get ready to take the citizenship test. She says it has written and oral sections, and you have to learn 100 civics questions for the multiple choice.
“everywhere from the President of the United States, all the way to when was the constitution written,” she said.
And Herrera Bustamante said language is just one of several barriers that applicants face.
“Securing work and housing, things like accessing service, transportation, and even cultural barriers,” said Herrera Bustamante.
And the test is difficult, even for English speakers. According to a 2019 study by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation, only 4 in 10 citizens could pass a sample test.
Diego Iniguez-Lopez is policy and campaign manager with the NPNA. At a press conference Tuesday, he said record numbers of immigrants have applied for citizenship since 2014. And it’s become a lot more difficult. The NPNA reports the Trump administration has nearly doubled the cost of filing from $640 to $1,160 and slowed down processing.
“Over the last several years, the Trump administration has tried to make that process of citizenship more expensive, more complicated and more lengthy," said Iniguez-Lopez. " It's what we've described is the ‘second wall.’”
Between these hurdles and what the NPNA calls “political unwillingness” of U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services to address a massive backlog of applications, there are nearly 1,000 people in New Mexico who should be eligible to vote in 2020 but can’t. Language barriers to getting a ballot also suppress voting by non-English speakers.
Still, Iniguez-Lopez said newly naturalized citizens can be a deciding factor in local and national elections. Since 2014, the NPNA reports there are 18,000 new citizens in New Mexico, most of them young women from Mexico, but there are also many from the Philippines, Vietnam and Cuba, according to the NPNA.
“They can have a tremendous impact on what this country looks like in 2021. But in order to display that impact, newly naturalized citizens have to vote,” said Iniguez-Lopez.
Eliza Perez came from Chihuahua, Mexico to New Mexico in 1998. She said she first took the citizenship test in 2010, and didn’t pass because of the language barrier. She finally passed the exam in March of this year.
“We need just representatives who offer us opportunities and needed services. Above all, as immigrants, we have helped this country so much," said Perez. "I will vote for the first time in November, for me, for my family and for my community, because my vote will be my voice.”