Could Pennsylvania’s 43K new citizens make the difference in 2020 election?

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Thirteen children from seven nations took the Oath of Allegience to become U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on July 4, 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Thirteen children from seven nations took the Oath of Allegience to become U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony at the Betsy Ross House in Philadelphia on July 4, 2018. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

At least 43,000 immigrants have become Pennsylvania citizens since the 2016 presidential election. That’s almost as many voters as the margin Trump won by, according to recent analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.

What that means for the 2020 election isn’t clear, but where those voters live in the commonwealth is an indication of where their votes could have an impact.

“Similar to the national story, [the growth of immigrants in Pa.] is really in suburbs,” said Andrew Lim, director of quantitative research at New American Economy, a pro-immigration think tank based in New York which crunched the census data. The group supplied additional county-level numbers to WHYY.

Philadelphia County saw the biggest growth with 7,500 new citizens added, but Chester County was second with 6,500. Allegheny, Dauphin, Delaware, Bucks and Luzerne Counties followed behind, each adding thousands of new immigrant voters since the last presidential race. Those changes could come from new citizens moving into those counties, or because people already living there became citizens.

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More and more immigrants are trying to become citizens since the last presidential election cycle. In 2018, 761,901 green card holders obtained citizenship, the highest number in five years, according to statistics compiled by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

According to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, an immigrant must first be a lawful, permanent resident for at least five years and read, speak and write basic English to qualify for citizenship.

But becoming a citizen doesn’t mean you’ll turn out to vote.

“Historically, the more recent the immigrant, the less likely that person is to register and vote,” according to a 2016 report on immigrant voter engagement from the University of Southern California. Following the election of President Trump and his focus on restricting immigration to the United States, immigrant-serving organizations such as UnidosUS have launched campaigns aimed at getting eligible residents to become citizens.

Local immigration and refugee-focused nonprofits say there is some reason to believe those efforts could make a difference in 2020.

Attorney Mary Clark coordinates a program to encourage green card holders to become citizens with the refugee resettlement group Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, or HIAS.

After 2016, many permanent residents expressed the desire to naturalize to have a greater sense of security when traveling, particularly if they were from a country affected by the Trump Administration’s travel ban, according to Clark.

However, in the last six months the reason given most consistently is voting.

“That’s why they’re applying for citizenship,” said Clark.

Eric Edi, the president and chief operating officer of AFRICOM, a coalition of groups supporting African and Caribbean immigrants in Southeastern Pennsylvania, said his group is working on a building database of naturalized voters so that they can get out the vote in 2020.

“We reached out to about 200 naturalized African citizens,” he said. “We continue to build that list for the general election.”

Fatoumata Barry, who originally is from Conakry, Guinea, said she’s excited to vote for the first time, and for a Democrat, in November.

“Democrats care about healthcare and they care about poor people, that’s the reason for me,” said Barry, who moved to the United States in 2010 for medical treatment.

Barry, who lives in Upper Darby, became a citizen in April 2019, saying it was her duty and responsibility.

Who the majority of new Pennsylvania voters will choose in November is anyone’s guess. Immigrant voters are not a monolith, and could help defeat Trump, or help keep him in the White House for four more years.

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