Donald Trump’s presidential campaign may actually be empowering the Latino vote.
No, really. At least that’s what a number of non-profit organizations and even the White House are working toward.
The Republican candidate’s harsh words toward immigrants and repeated campaign promises to deport millions of undocumented people and build an impermeable wall along the U.S.-Mexico border immediately propelled him to the front of the GOP pack, but it’s also driving a larger number of immigrants than usual to seek U.S. citizenship – and have a voice in whether or not Trump wins the White House this November.
Hortensia Villegas is a Colorado mother of two who immigrated from Mexico legally nearly 10 years ago. She never felt the need to become a citizen, she told the New York Times, until Trump rose in the polls.
“I want to vote so Donald Trump won’t win,” Villegas, 32, told the paper at a Denver union hall where volunteers were helping hundreds of immigrants to fill out citizenship applications. “He doesn’t like us.”
And Villegas is not alone. Her sister and parents, as well as the parents of her husband – Miguel Garfío, who is a U.S. citizen by virtue of having been born in Colorado –are part of the crush of Latino immigrants who are trying to naturalize in time to vote this year.
Applications for citizenship were up in the six months through the end of January by 14 percent over the same time frame the previous year, the Times reported. Activists say that the numbers are growing by the week, estimating that the total applications for fiscal year 2016, which lasts until the end of September, could wind up close to a million.
That’s a 20 percent increase over previous years.
Traditionally, Mexican immigrants have sought citizenship at lower rates than others – according to Pew Research Center data, 36 percent of eligible Mexicans in recent years have become citizens, compared to 68 percent of immigrants overall.
That may be changing, thanks to Trump.
Maria Polanco, a Honduran migrant who has lived in Nevada for 26 years but is only now applying for citizenship, told the Guardian recently, “We [immigrants] are not perfect, but the majority of us are not what Donald Trump says. We came looking for better opportunities for us and our kids. My great pride is that my daughter graduated from college – I don’t think she could’ve done that in my country.”
“People who are eligible are really feeling the urgency to get out there,” Tara Raghuveer, the deputy director of the National Partnership for New Americans, told the Times. “They are worried by the prospect that someone who is running for president has said hateful things.”
“This is a big deal,” Jocelyn Sida of Mi Familia Vota, told the Guardian. “We as Latinos are always being told that we’re taking jobs or we’re anchor babies, and all these things are very hurtful. It’s getting to the point where folks are frustrated with that type of rhetoric. They realize the only way they can stop this is by getting involved civically.”
Labor unions and NGOs like the National Partnership are the main actors providing assistance to those of the 8.8 million non-citizen immigrants who may want to naturalize, but they are not alone.
The White House launched a national campaign in September to help people apply for citizenship, setting up “citizen corners” at public libraries and recruiting prominent immigrants like 1980s pitching star Fernando Valenzuela and Spanish chef José Andrés for ads.
Last week, $10 million dollars in federal grants were promised to NGOs helping immigrants through the application process.
Many conservatives see it as a blatant effort to expand Democratic support in battleground states with large numbers of immigrants like Florida, Colorado and Nevada.
“I certainly don’t care what party they register with; I just want them to become citizens,” said Leon Rodriguez, director of the Department of Homeland Security’s U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), told the times.
The candidate himself has long suggested that he’ll win the Latino vote, and his campaign spokesperson, Hope Hicks, told the Times, “No one will benefit more from Mr. Trump’s pro-worker immigration reforms than the millions of immigrants who already call America home.”
Mary Victorio, 22, a Mexican-born student at the University of Colorado Denver, told the newspaper that while she didn’t support him politically, she was grateful to Trump. “He gave us that extra push we needed to get ready to vote, to prove to people who see us negatively they are wrong.”