Dems Launch Hispanic Citizenship Campaign

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A Mexican immigrant who harvests cauliflower in California's central coast region, Andoreni Fierro wanted to know what he had to do to become a U.S. citizen.

Meanwhile, Gustavo Cruz Quintero, who has lived in the United States for two decades, asked whether he could exchange his green card for citizenship - and eventually the right to vote.

Both men brought their questions to an immigration forum in Salinas, a town sometimes called the "Salad Bowl of the World," where Hispanics make up about two-thirds of the population, and hold many of the jobs in the agriculture industry.

The hosts for the forum: a Democratic congressman, Rep. Sam Farr (search); a Democratic state assemblyman, Simon Salinas; and local immigration advocates.

While politicians say the idea behind such sessions is to allow immigrants to fully join in American society, analysts note they also help create a new voter base among the nation's largest minority group - just in time for next year's presidential election.

"It's going to add new folks to the rolls and it's their belief they will vote for Democrats," said Larry Gonzalez, Washington-based director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (search). "There is a sense of loyalty to those who help them through the process. They remember that you were the person who helped hold their hand."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., says there are plans for similar citizenship workshops in states such as Texas, Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and New York. He hopes 100 will be held between now and next June.

At the workshops, immigrants will receive help filling out naturalization forms. They'll have their photos taken for the applications and get advice on interviews, English proficiency exams and civics tests.

In Salinas, the radio network La Campesina, run by the United Farm Workers (search), broadcast news of the event in Spanish from the parking lot. Inside the Catholic Charities hall, Fierro learned that he must study English to pass U.S. citizenship exams.

Quintero, originally from Mexico, said he wants to become a citizen because he feels that the United States is now his home.

"I don't want to return to my country. I have family here. We're well established," said Quintero, 47, who is on disability leave from his job packing lettuce in a processing plant. "I want to take part in electing the president and senators."

The Census Bureau (search) recently said Hispanics, who number 38.8 million, are the nation's largest minority group. But with just 7.5 million registered voters in 2000, they don't yet have the political clout to match their numbers.

"This is their country. They should become fully involved in this nation," said Gutierrez, who noted that the latest effort expands on workshops he has held for nine years.

In the 2000 presidential elections, 5.9 million of the 7.5 million registered Hispanic voters cast ballots. In 2004, the number of actual voters could increase to as many as 9.1 million, according to an analysis by the National Council of La Raza (search), a Hispanic advocacy group.

While Hispanics supported Democrat Al Gore over George W. Bush in the 2000 election, some say they aren't tied to a particular party.

"At some level, this community's vote is up for grabs," said Cecilia Munoz, a vice president at NCLR. "There is a widespread sense that this segment of the electorate is terribly important. It's important because it's concentrated in the big electoral states, and increasingly, it could provide the margin in a lot of key swing states - New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, Nevada."

Like the Democrats, the GOP has been courting Hispanic voters. Republicans have been registering Hispanics to vote at booths outside of naturalization ceremonies and at celebrations like Cinco de Mayo and New York's Puerto Rican parade, said Sharon Castillo, deputy communications director for the Republican National Committee (search).

"This is the right thing to do, to engage more of our fellow citizens in the political process of this country," Castillo said. "If it's politically expedient for us, great ... It only empowers the Latino community that both parties are so aggressively seeking to do outreach to the community."

Ernest Bruce, a Costa Rican immigrant who has lived in the United States for 13 years, said his family urged him to go to the Salinas forum to learn more about naturalization.

"I believe in this country," said Bruce, 33, a Silicon Valley technical writer. "I want to be able to vote so I can contribute to helping get the right people in the right positions."