Politics & Government

Naturalized voters critical in future California elections, study says

WASHINGTON -- Naturalized citizens in the San Joaquin Valley could decide future elections, immigrant advocates conclude in a revealing report issued Thursday.

Nearly one in six voting-age residents in some Valley congressional districts are foreign-born naturalized U.S. citizens, the new report shows. This is twice the national average and could shape Valley politics for years to come.

"We have the ability to carry an election," Tuyet G. Duong, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, declared Thursday. "We're a force to contend with."

Duong is senior staff attorney with the Asian American Justice Center, which helped release the new immigrant voting study. The report is apparently the first to tally both naturalized citizens and the children of immigrants, a combined population the report's authors dub the New Americans.

"This new immigrant population is just exploding," said research analyst Rob Paral, the report's chief author.

This is certainly the case in California, where two years ago 24 percent of all registered voters were naturalized Americans or the children of immigrants who have arrived since 1965. This far exceeded any other state and marked an increase from 22 percent in 2004.

California's 18th Congressional District exemplifies the trend, stretching from Stockton to Merced and into a sliver of Fresno County. Nearly 16 percent of the district's voting-age residents are naturalized U.S. citizens, the new report shows.

By contrast, only 7.5 percent of voting-age residents nationwide are naturalized citizens.

The population is similar in the neighboring 20th Congressional District, which includes Kings County and portions of Fresno and Kern counties. Slightly more than 14 percent of the district's registered voters are naturalized U.S. citizens, the study shows.

"It's not that everyone comes from Mexico," noted Mike Lynch, a Modesto-based public policy consultant and former congressional staffer. "This part of the country has an enormous number of ethnic groups. We have Armenians. We have Sikhs. We have Ukrainians. We have Portuguese."

Populations, in turn, drive political agendas. Attuned to Armenian-American voters, the Valley's lawmakers have always been in the forefront of efforts to pass a controversial Armenian genocide commemoration. Heeding conservative Hmong residents, Valley politicians denounce the socialist Laotian government. The Congressional Portuguese Caucus is rooted in the region.

"The Portuguese culture is thriving in the San Joaquin Valley, and there are many festas (cq) throughout the year, family reunions, the exchanges of those traditions and the ties that bind us quite well," Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said last month as the House passed a resolution commemorating Portuguese immigration.

Naturalization also burdens Valley congressional offices, where staffers report they spend considerable time helping immigrants navigate citizenship hurdles. Latino and Asian immigrants dominate the rolls of recently naturalized U.S. citizens living in California.

In some parts of the state, the so-called New Americans are even more of an electoral force -- at least, they could be. Naturalized citizens account for more than one-third of the voting-age populations in some San Francisco Bay Area and Southern California congressional districts, according to the study based on Census Bureau data and surveys.

Relatively weak voting turnout, though, also undermines the immigrants' potential. Sixty-one percent of naturalized U.S. citizens voted in 2004, compared to 73 percent of other Americans.

The report titled "The New American Electorate" was released by the Washington-based Immigration Policy Center and is meant to serve a political agenda. The group is part of a foundation created by the American Immigration Lawyers Association, which supports comprehensive legislation that legalizes illegal immigrants. The legislation has stalled on Capitol Hill and advocates hope to regain momentum.

The report can be found at: http://immigrationpolicy.org/images/File/specialreport/NewCitizenVotersWEBversion.pdf