Brenda Cienfuegos recently became a U.S. citizen and is eager to exercise her new rights as an American. She says voting gives Latinos like her a voice.
“Voting is something I’ve always done in my country,” she said. “I couldn’t do it here, but now I can.”
Originally from El Salvador, Cienfuegos, a mother of two who came legally to the United States in 2010, registered to vote right after her U.S. citizenship ceremony in York, Pennsylvania, earlier this year.
She demurs when asked if she is backing a candidate in the November presidential contest.
“Like I learned in my country, my vote is secret," Cienfuegos said. "But what I can tell you? I’m going to support the candidate who better supports the Latino community.”
Cienfuegos is part of a growing cohort flexing its muscle in America’s democratic process. U.S. Census data compiled by the Pew Research Center shows more than 23 million naturalized citizens will be eligible to vote in the 2020 presidential elections, comprising about 10 percent of the electorate.
The clout of naturalized Americans at the ballot box is recognized by political groups spanning the ideological spectrum.
Mike Madrid, cofounder of the Lincoln Project, a political action committee of renegade Republicans working to defeat President Donald Trump, notes that naturalized citizens “have a greater likelihood to vote” than their native-born counterparts and are “a much more pro-immigrant voting bloc, being immigrants themselves.”
Trump loyalists say they, too, are reaching out to Americans born in other lands.
“We recognized the importance of engaging every American citizen as a potential voter, including those who are naturalized citizens,” the Republican National Committee’s Director of Hispanic Media, Yali Nuñez, told VOA.
New American turnout
According to Pew, Latinos and Asians account for nearly two-thirds of new citizens eligible to vote this year.
Pew found that 53 percent of naturalized Latinos and 52 percent of naturalized Asians voted in 2016, compared to 46 percent of native-born Latinos and 45 percent of native-born Asians.
The top countries from which new voters originated are Mexico, Philippines, India, and China.
In North Carolina, Juliana Cabrales of the NALEO Educational Fund, a nonpartisan organization that promotes Latino civic participation, said political parties need to maintain a dialogue with new Americans on a constant basis, not just in election years.
“What we've seen in prior years is that political parties tend to take Latinos for granted, as never voting or always voting one way," Cabrales said. "As an organization, we actively ask political parties to engage Latinos.”
Cabrales added that presidential campaigns actively reach out to new Americans in battleground states but often overlook them in the rest of the country.
“Latinos that live in California, in New York, in Texas are often forgotten, and don't hear from candidates requesting them to vote, or even ... as to why they should support one candidate over another," she said. "So there needs to be greater investment across the board, in getting voters to turn out and making sure that the focus is not just on those states that are considered crucial in one election versus another.”
Opinion surveys and exit polling data from recent elections show that immigrant voters as a whole tend to lean Democratic, something that doesn't surprise some Republican operatives.
Brendan Steinhauser, a Texas-based GOP consultant, told VOA that rhetoric from the top of the party has caused a perception that Republicans do not welcome immigrants even if they come legally to the United States.
Steinhauser, who has worked for Texas Republican Senator John Cornyn, said Cornyn has regularly sent aides to attend naturalization ceremonies in the state.
“He did a great job that actually ended up winning the Hispanic vote in Texas [in past elections],” Steinhauser said, adding that, going forward, appealing to new citizens will be imperative for both political parties.
“After 2020, regardless of what happens, the Republican Party — just like the Democrats—will have no choice but to appeal to a wide swath of the American people,” he said. “A party that doesn't do that will not have a future in this country."
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Olivia Quinto had no family or friends at her side for her recent naturalization ceremony.
Originally from the Philippines, Quinto will be voting for the first time November 3 in Texas with her mother, who became a U.S citizen at the beginning of the year.
She told VOA much is at stake in the outcome.
“This election is going to be about real-life consequences to the people that we love. And so that's where I have my head [focused],” she said.