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What It's Like to Become a U.S. Citizen in a Contentious Election Year

There are more than half a million people waiting for their chance to become citizens — hopefully in time to vote on November 8.

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KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes


Latino men in wide brimmed cowboy hats, Muslim women donning colorful headscarves and Jamaican nationals in finely pressed suits filed their way into a makeshift federal courtroom at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Clutching tiny American flags on the final day of their journey to citizenship, and with patriotic music blaring from speakers, more than 6,600 immigrants quickly find their seats.

These new citizens, sworn in on May 18, 2016, are the lucky ones.

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released startling statistics in September: There are more than half a million people waiting for their chance to become citizens — hopefully in time to vote on November 8. In the last year alone nearly 940,000 immigrants applied to become citizens, and 520,000 applications remain in limbo due to backlogs.

The number of applications to become citizens is up 32 percent this fiscal year over 2015. Jeffrey Carter, a spokesperson for the USCIS, told the New York Times the government expected an increased interest by immigrants during this election year, but “the increase has exceeded expectations.”

The National Partnership for New Americans, a collective of immigrant rights organizations, says its members have been running citizenship campaigns over the last year. The group calculated, based on expected wait times, that immigrants who completed their applications by June should be eligible to vote in November.

It’s unlikely that all that work will pay off the way they had hoped.

KELSEY HAWES
  • Kelsey Hawes

Other organizations, across the political spectrum, have also worked to help immigrants to become citizens and register to vote.

From May to July, more than 10,000 immigrants completed their application process in time to take part in two USCIS naturalization ceremonies in Los Angeles. Republicans and Democrats recognized the importance of this new voting bloc early in the year and set out to woo the immigrant Americans — who could help decide the fate of the 2016 election.

Outside the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall in May, groups of loyal political activists ready for battle as deadlines for voter registration draw near. Renee Nahum, political director for the LA Democratic Party, eyes a Republican Party operative who had moved to position herself in front of the doors where the thousands of new Americans would soon emerge.

“She’s not supposed to be there,” she says with a scornful tone to no one in particular.

Few political analysts dispute the significance of the immigrant vote in this election and the activists on the ground know what’s at stake.

Back inside, on a stage where one could easily envision Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton appealing to their supporters from beneath a massive American flag, Judge Barry Russell arrives and promptly announces that the court will come to order. He warmly congratulates the immigrants who came from more than 130 countries for their milestone achievement. The immigrants watch a short video and pledge to defend their new country. The judge then declares that they all are now citizens of the United States. Tears and hugs ensue, and the judge reminds them of their responsibility to vote before they leave.

Back outside, the word spreads: “They’re coming out.” Two women first exit the hall into choreographed chaos. Nahum and a colleague jump into action with their anti-Trump message, urging the two women to register as Democrats. Without breaking stride, the women continued on their way.

His job is to appeal to the immigrants by displaying a photo of an angry-looking Donald Trump with a slash through it that he taped to the back of his voter registration clipboard.

Shouts of “Congratulations! Have you registered?” echo off the glass doors where thousands of newly-minted citizens stride into the political scrum. The shouts come from both the left and the right, figuratively and literally, as operatives jockey for position.

Nahum and Lopez, both with their anti-Trump registration clipboards, try to appeal especially to the increasingly influential Latinos. But Republican volunteer Shirley Thomas, standing just a few feet away in her Trump T-shirt and “Make America Great Again” hat, is equally determined.

She counters the Democrats with open arms and warm wishes, while trying to steer some of the new citizens toward the Republican booth.

“They’re always in a hurry,” she tells me later.

As more immigrants fill the walkway, the cacophony of greetings and registration questions grows louder and louder until it all sounds like one overzealous infomercial. Then, a joyous shrill breaks the rhythmic noise.

“Woohoo!” exclaims Shannan Calland, who thrusts her arm in the air after nabbing a new voter for the Democrats.

Standing only a few feet away, the small team of Trump backers seem unfazed. Trump volunteers have a tough job trying to lure immigrants. But Thomas sees it differently.

“Every immigrant knows of Donald Trump,” she says. “They see our Republican sign and say ‘Trump, Trump’ with thumbs up. No one has ever mentioned any other candidate over the past year.”

She repositions herself as the pace of new Americans exiting the ceremony picks up. Thomas quickly grabs an older Latino man who had just exited the hall. With a hand on the man’s arm, she and another volunteer gently coax him toward the Republican table where he sits down. He seems overwhelmed and confused. He stays at the table for several minutes before simply getting up and leaving.

By the July citizenship ceremony, the chairs at the booth proudly displaying a cardboard cut-out of Ronald Reagan were mostly empty while only a few feet away it was standing-room only for the Democrats.


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