Immigrants seen as key swing vote

14 million may go on rolls, report says


New research from a Chicago advocacy group estimates that 14 million immigrants could become new voters by the 2008 election, representing a crucial voting group in tight races around the country.

The figures, released in a report yesterday by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, illustrate an untapped electoral power at a time when Congress is engaged in a bruising battle over immigration policy, said advocates.

Maryland, with an estimated 195,000 potential voters, is one of 17 states whose immigrant populations could swing tight races, the study says.

The total figures are a combination of potential voters: legal immigrants who are eligible to become citizens, U.S.-born children of immigrants who are registered to vote, U.S.-born children who are 18 to 24 years old but are not registered voters, and U.S.-born children who will be of voting age by 2008.

Legal immigrants must become naturalized citizens before they may register to vote. The naturalization process generally includes an application, interview, fingerprinting and a passing score on a citizenship exam. U.S.-born children of immigrants are automatically citizens.

Joshua Hoyt, executive director for the Illinois advocacy group, said there is evidence that an increasing number of immigrants want to become citizens. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security reported a 19 percent increase in the submission of citizenship applications from a year ago, the report states.

Hoyt said the national debate over immigration reform, which spurred huge demonstrations by immigrant groups in cities nationwide, has been the catalyst for civic involvement.

While Hoyt acknowledges that young people have the lowest rates of voter participation in the United States, he said the political influence of the children of immigrant parents remains to be seen.

"If you had told me in January that millions of immigrants are going to march in the street, I would have told you, `That's never going to happen,'" he said. "But it did."

The Illinois organization is part of a national coalition of immigrant groups, known as the We Are America Alliance, whose goal is to register voters this summer. Alliance member CASA of Maryland will organize voter registration drives this weekend in Baltimore, Takoma Park, Silver Spring and Langley Park. "If we were just going to register people, I don't think anyone would vote," said Kim Propeak, a spokeswoman for CASA of Maryland. "But it's going to be part of a more complete process. We're going to be making follow-up calls and sponsoring candidate debates about key issues."

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