POLITICS

'Trump effect' in Connecticut spurs Latinos to become U.S. citizens, hit the voting boxes

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  Voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday primaries in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights on February 5, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Latinos are an increasingly important factor in California where they are expected to account for 14 percent of the vote and tend to favor presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) over rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). At 44 million, Latinos make up15 percent of the US population, the nation's largest minority group according to the latest Census Bureau estimates.  (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Voters go to the polls for Super Tuesday primaries in the predominantly Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights on February 5, 2008 in Los Angeles, California. Latinos are an increasingly important factor in California where they are expected to account for 14 percent of the vote and tend to favor presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-NY) over rival Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL). At 44 million, Latinos make up15 percent of the US population, the nation's largest minority group according to the latest Census Bureau estimates. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)  (2008 Getty Images)

Ecuadorians, Dominicans, Mexicans, Guatemalans and Colombians previously content with permanent legal status suddenly want to become citizens and claim their right to vote.

"We are extremely busy-- this is no joke," says Andrea Contreras, the executive director of the Hispanic Center, which has been assisting up to 10 new citizenship applications each week for the past three months. "It has been overwhelming for us, and we are surprised how many people want to become citizens."

The local surge in interest in citizenship apparently is part of a larger national trend of Latinos registering to voice their objection-- one vote at a time --to inflammatory comments about immigrants by GOP front-runner Donald Trump.

A record 27 million Hispanics are expected to be eligible to vote this year, in part because of immigrants going through the naturalization process as they are in Danbury. The other major trend driver is Latino millennials such as Stephani Figueroa, who is old enough to vote this year in her first presidential election.

"I heard about some of the things that Trump said and I definitely don't like it because we are all working here and we are all part of the community," said Figueroa, 20, the Danbury-born daughter of a Guatemalan immigrant. "What he said about immigrants and other nationalities has made him one of the top candidates, just because he is being a racist."

Trump's spokeswoman did not respond to a request on Friday to share his strategy to win the state's 280,000 Latino voters in the April 26 Connecticut primary.

Trump has suggested there is no issue after angering Latinos by calling Mexicans criminals and promising to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. At a Feb. 26 debate, Trump noted he won the Nevada primary with Hispanic backing, saying "I'm doing very well with Hispanics."

Two Latina candidates who are courting support for state office-- Newtown Democrat Eva Bermudez Zimmerman and Danbury Republican Emanuela Palmares --are not so sure.

"For every vote he might gain with that negative campaigning, he is going to lose a vote from someone who knows a family who needs immigration reform," said Zimmerman, who is running against the GOP's Rep. Mitch Bolinsky to represent the 106th District.

Palmares, the first Brazilian to run for state office, said Trump's statements clash with the principles of social justice she believes in. Palmares is running to represent the 110th District held by Democrat Bob Godfrey.

"I think that whenever you see two extremes being so loud and pulling people apart, it is really the birth of a very diverse middle ground," said Palmares. "It's my hope that from this whole national conversation we are having that a lot of new leaders are going to be born that are going to strive to make it their life's mission to find balance."

It's clear to Hispanic center staff that this is no ordinary election-year spike in citizenship applications-- and that Trump is motivating immigrants to mobilize.

"Yes, we have had people say that to us," Contreras said. "His comments are not just attacking undocumented immigrants-- they are attacking everybody."

But in a year when Hispanics as a voting bloc are expected to equal African-Americans in voting power, the details are complicated.

One obstacle to quantifying the impact of immigrants on voting is that the term Hispanic can be misinterpreted. Portuguese-speaking Brazilians, who may identify with immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries as fellow Latinos, don't identify themselves as Hispanics to census-takers, for example.

The Hispanic label gap makes a big difference in Danbury, a city of 83,000, where Hispanics are conservatively thought to be 25 percent of the population. The Brazilian population estimate of 11,000 is widely thought to live outside the Census count for Hispanics.

Another difficulty: The 52 percent of Connecticut Hispanics who are eligible to vote in 2016 is skewed by the fact that over half of Hispanics are Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens and can vote in primaries but can't vote for the president, said Orlando Rodriguez, an analyst at the Latino and Puerto Rican Affairs Commission in Hartford.

Rodriguez added that since local registrars don't track voter registration by ethnicity, the state relies on a formula to approximate Hispanic voter registration, checking registrations against a list of common Hispanic surnames.

Finally, there is the debatable impact of the undocumented population-- ostensibly a group that should not be able to affect an election because everyone is living under the radar.

The rule of thumb in the Latino community, however, is that everyone who can't vote knows someone who can, and everyone who can vote knows someone who can't.

"Definitely, I have friends and also family members who want to be able to make a difference but don't necessarily have the opportunity to voice their opinion," says the 20-year-old, Figueroa, who has not made up her mind who will get her vote for president. "That is why I feel it is so important to use my voice to make a difference."

Palmares, the editor of a tri-language newspaper, agrees.

"If I ignore you for five years, which really says I don't value you because you can't vote, then how can I expect you to be engaged and know what's going on?" Palmares said.

The growing number of Latino voters across the country, and their objection to Trump's pledge to build a wall on the southern border and make Mexico pay for it, has made headlines recently.

A poll conducted in late February by the Washington Post and Univision News found that among Hispanic voters: 82 percent want the next president to support a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and 43 percent would not vote for a candidate who opposed it; 74 percent find Trump's immigration views offensive; Trump himself had an unfavorable rating of 64 percent.

At home, Zimmerman said, views about Trump are similar among Latinos.

"It's upsetting that somebody who built his business on the backs of minority workers would say something like that," Zimmerman said. "To what end is he so desperate to push people aside and treat people like second-class citizens who are working here?"

At stake is not only the contribution Latinos in greater Danbury make toward the nomination of major-party candidates, or the election of a new president in November.

Danbury is also working to close the gap between established residents and the newest wave of immigrant Americans.

The more involved residents are in civic life, the more integrated they will become in the culture, Palmares agrees.

"The more you become legitimized in your status journey, the more you care about everything around you because now you have increased access to things you didn't have before," she said.

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