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Candidates' Anti-immigrant Rhetoric Driving Push for US Citizenship

  • Aru Pande

Natives of Peru, Maria and Jorge Arana have lived and worked in Miami for six years as permanent residents.

"This is the moment. I have been working and living here. This is a beautiful country, and it's the correct moment to become a U.S. citizen," Maria Arana said as she signed naturalization paperwork with the help of staff at the Miami-based Florida Immigrant Coalition.

The mother of two has been paying close attention to this year's presidential campaign as it plays out on her television. She says a focus on the issue of immigration drove her to finally apply for American citizenship in order to be able to vote.

"The main issue for me is to stop deportation,” Arana said. “I really want all the immigrant families that have been living and working here to become a part of the community and legalized."

The couple is not alone in its desire to weigh in on the political process through the ballot box.

Rush to citizenship

Ivan Parra, the citizenship program manager at the Florida Immigrant Coalition, has seen a spike in the number of people interested in becoming American citizens during this election year.

FILE - New citizens wave American flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony on the campus of Florida International University in Miami, Florida, July 6, 2015.

FILE - New citizens wave American flags during a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services naturalization ceremony on the campus of Florida International University in Miami, Florida, July 6, 2015.

An upcoming citizenship clinic set for a stadium in Miami is set to draw at least 1,000 people.

"During the last year, we served around 500 people during the whole year. This year, in one weekend, we served 400. So, you basically have an idea of the number of people who are coming," Parra said as he fielded phone calls on the upcoming event, where volunteers help people navigate the process and the paperwork involved with becoming naturalized.

The number of potential new voters is significant, with nearly 9 million people across the United States eligible to become American citizens. In Florida alone, some 800,000 people are eligible to become naturalized.

"Millions of people here in the U.S. are ready to apply. They have been working hard. They have been paying their taxes. They speak English," Parra noted. "They may lack money, knowledge, or be in fear of the process. We reach out to them."

The permanent residents just need help navigating the system, and a push to finally take the steps necessary to vote in the country they have lived in — in some cases — for decades.

Holding politicians accountable

Julio Calderon, born and raised in Honduras, spends his days at the coalition making sure a 2014 Florida waiver guaranteeing undocumented immigrants in-state tuition is properly implemented.

An undocumented immigrant himself, the 26-year-old hopes all those eligible to vote will exercise their right to do just that.

"Latinos, we are the ones who don't vote, and you see it in Washington, D.C. We represent 17 percent of the whole population in the United States and we have less than one percent of the people elected," Calderon noted.

With ongoing deportations of the undocumented and candidates' threats to ban certain immigrants from arriving in the United States, Calderon says the stakes could not be higher.

"For candidates, I think we have a great opportunity to push them to really say what they want to do and for them to do it. Not just say it,” he said. “The Latino vote is very important, and we have to hold them accountable."

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