The latest Census numbers for Philadelphia indicate that the city’s population growth is fueled in great part by the influx of immigrants. As many of those immigrants ride the path towards citizenship, they have the potential of becoming an increasingly powerful bi-partisan voting bloc. A number of Philadelphia based immigrant advocacy organizations are focusing on helping these new citizens find their voice in the political process.
Go to a naturalization ceremony and you can almost feel and hear a sigh of relief from the 65 or so people in the room. Here, new citizens who have navigated all the hurdles in their path towards citizenship receive their coveted naturalization document. For most, the moment says welcome and it also says this is a new start, and within ten minutes of becoming citizens half are registered to vote.
In the same room where the new citizens have just taken take their oaths, volunteers from the Pennsylvania Immigration and Citizenship Coalition (PICC) have set up a large table. Forms in hand, they’re ready to register future voters.
“We have a relationship with the USCIS (US Citizenship and Immigration Service Bureau) whereby we are present at every single naturalization ceremony that takes place in Philadelphia”, explains Natasha Kelemen, PICC’s Executive Director.
Kelemen says that between 5 and 7 ceremonies take place each week bring PICC’s weekly average to about 150 registrations. But every voter registration drive organizer will tell you that being eligible to vote, does not necessary translate into participation at the polls. Making these new citizens more likely to cast their ballot is the goal of a number of “get-out-the vote” organizations. They follow up on the newly registered voters using phone banks and canvassing.
Kelemen says that for the 2010 midterm election PICC made 6,770 calls to immigrant votes of which 61 percent went to the polls.
The numbers tell the story, adds Kelemen. Chances are that new citizens waited so many years to get their naturalization papers that they are aware of what “your vote is your voice,” “tu voto es tu voz” slogan really means. A Guatemalan man who brought his entire family to the naturalization ceremony, waited for twenty years. He wants to vote, he says, to take action and exercise his new rights and help other Latinos.
Yet the voting rate among naturalized citizens in Pennsylvania is considered below its true potential. Community activist Numa St Louis is only too aware of that gap and is working to close it. A member of the Mayor’s Commission on Afro-Caribbean affairs, St Louis was born in the U.S. but spent part of his childhood with his family’ in Haiti. His bi-cultural experience, he says, is an asset in reaching voters, with a specific message.
“If we want a seat by the table, we have to organize. So we’re going to make sure that whether its government or politics, that when decisions are being made in terms of allocation of resources, when the budget is being put together, that our community is not forgotten,” says St Louis.
Activists like businessman Uche Ojeh and other civic minded young entrepreneurs, started exploring different avenues and founded an African-Caribbean Political Action Committee. His PAC lobbies for issues on behalf of the African-Caribbean community, contributes to candidates who best represent their interests.
As elections approach, groups involved in registering and mobilizing immigrant voters are swinging into high gear. In the long run, all these efforts to enfranchise new citizens, says Kelemen, are as American as the immigrant experience. “For many immigrants, one of the driving forces behind wanting to complete the naturalization process is because they wanted to vote. And so I think for many, kind of having the chance to vote is seen as a wonderful opportunity to become more engaged in their new country.”
At the completion of a recent naturalization ceremony, one newly naturalized Haitian women exclaimed, “J’aime la democracie, I love democracy!” It’s a sentiment shared by many of the new citizens as they registered to vote.