Natural(ized) Enemies

How Republicans made foes of America’s newest citizens.

A citizenship ceremony
A citizenship ceremony

Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images.

For years now, Republicans have successfully fought for legislation making life hard for immigrants. Laws on the books bar immigrants from receiving public benefits and obtaining government jobs, threaten them with deportation for minor offenses, and in some instances encourage police harassment. But the GOP should tread more carefully when it comes to immigration—and not only because some of the party’s positions might offend Latinos. Ironically, the Republican push for laws designed to encourage “self-deportation” have accomplished something entirely different; they have created a politically significant bloc of naturalized citizens who are deeply motivated to vote out those politicians who enacted these laws in the first place.

Much has been written about the record turnout of Latinos in the 2012 election, which has put immigration reform back on the political agenda. Mostly overlooked is the newfound electoral strength of naturalized citizens, who also care deeply about immigration reform, but who cannot simply be lumped together with the Latino vote. Naturalized citizens comprise more than 8 percent of eligible voters, two-thirds of whom are not Latino They constitute a discrete, and increasingly powerful, voice in favor of immigration reform.

Of particular interest are the newly naturalized citizens—those who became Americans in the last decade—because surveys show that both their choice to pursue American citizenship and their subsequent voting behavior are influenced by the politically charged atmosphere surrounding immigration. Immigrants can be denied many of the public benefits available to citizens, such as access to Medicaid, food stamps, and welfare. Newly naturalized citizens report that one of the main reasons they chose to become American citizens is to acquire the civil and legal rights of citizens. Foreign-born Americans are also at special risk for harassment under the new “show-me-your-papers” laws in Alabama and Arizona, which allow the police to ask for proof of citizenship from anyone who they have “reasonable suspicion” to think is in the United States illegally.

Most seriously, even legal immigrants who have lived in this country for nearly their entire lives are at risk of deportation for minor crimes. (Exhibit No. 1 is Adrian Moncrieffe, whose case is before the Supreme Court. Moncrieffe has been a legal resident of the United States since he arrived with his family at age 3 in 1984 and yet is now threatened with deportation for possessing three cigarettes’ worth of marijuana.). The recent spate of state immigration laws were intended to scare immigrants into returning to their countries of origin. But they have backfired on their supporters—pushing immigrants to naturalize and then seek their revenge at the ballot box.

Once they earn the benefits and protections of citizenship, these new Americans put their rights to work. A recent report from the Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration at the University of Southern California found that voting rates among the newly naturalized increased during periods “charged by political tensions around immigration.” Data from the 2008 presidential election show that newly naturalized immigrants are registering to vote at higher rates than in the past. The report’s authors suggest that the politics of immigration reform inspire these new citizens to participate in the political process. In other words, the louder the anti-immigration rhetoric, the more likely these new citizens are to register and vote.

As has been widely recognized, Latino voters strongly supported Democrats in 2012, but the naturalized vote shouldn’t be confused with the Latino vote. Only a third of naturalized voters are Latino, another third is Asian, and the rest are non-Hispanic whites and blacks. This racially and ethnically diverse group of foreign-born citizens supports Democrats over Republicans. Indeed, 73 percent of Asians voted for Obama in the 2012 elections, a higher percentage than the 71 percent of Latinos who did, and in much higher numbers than Asians supported Democrats in the past. Two-thirds of Asians are naturalized citizens, and thus it appears that the GOP’s hostility to immigrants alienated these voters just as it did other naturalized citizens.

Of course, even in their increased numbers, naturalized citizens make up a small fraction of the current electorate. But we live in an era in which state and federal elections are decided by razor-thin margins in battleground states—states where many of these new Americans reside. In the November 2012 election, for example, newly naturalized citizens constituted 6 percent of the voting-age population in Florida—a state that Barack Obama won with just a .88 percent margin of victory. Likewise, the newly naturalized make up 5.1 percent of the eligible voters in Nevada and 3.5 percent in Virginia—both states that narrowly favored Obama over Mitt Romney. These voters may also have made the difference in the close Senate races in Virginia, in which Democrat Tim Kaine beat Republican George Allen by only 5 percent, and in Massachusetts, where Elizabeth Warren defeated Scott Brown by a similarly narrow margin in a state in which 5 percent of the voting-age population was naturalized since 2000. 

The trend is sure to continue with the help of immigrant rights groups seeking to harness the power of the naturalized vote. On Nov. 26, 2012, the New Americans Campaign kicked off its effort to push the nation’s 8 million eligible immigrants to naturalize. Headed by Doris Meissner and James Ziglar—both former Immigration and Naturalization Service Commissioners who served under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, respectively—the New Americans Campaign will donate $20 million to promote naturalization in major metropolitan areas. Existing groups, such as the Oregon Voice New American Voters Project, provide voter registration at naturalization ceremonies, and the New Americans Democracy Project promotes voter turnout among the immigrant community. As these organizations well know, naturalized citizens are a powerful voting bloc in favor of immigration reform.

After the 2012 elections, Republicans appear willing to consider legislation allowing undocumented immigrants to remain in the United States. So far, however, they have been reluctant to provide undocumented immigrants with a path to citizenship, in part because they fear that these new citizens will vote against them in upcoming elections. Left out of this calculus is the voting power of naturalized citizens, who don’t have to wait for immigration reform to seek retribution at the polls.