Appealing to Latino voters will be crucial come November, political experts have agreed.
Hispanics account for 16 percent of the population, and every month an estimated 18,000 Latinos in the U.S. are turning 18 and many are also becoming eligible to vote
But eligibility and participation are not equal. Latinos are less likely to vote than any other ethnic group. That's certainly the case in Nevada.
Latinos make up 26 percent of the population in Nevada, but they accounted for less than 12 percent of voters during the last presidential election.
One reason more Latinos aren’t voting: Many aren’t citizens. Some of them are even eligible to become citizens, but haven’t bothered to go through the citizenship process.
In a small trailer in downtown Las Vegas, about 20 people are bothering with the process with the help of the organization, “The Citizenship Project.” Students are quizzing each other on American history, geography, and civics to prepare for the citizenship exam. They tackle questions like, “Who is the Chief Justice of the United States?” and “Name two of the longest rivers in the US.”
To become citizens, they’ll also have to demonstrate a basic mastery of English.
At one table, teacher Martha Mynatt is working with student Alvaro Martinez on his English. Mynatt has Martinez read sentences such as, “The capital of the United States is Washington D.C.”
Martinez is originally from Guatemala. He’s been eligible to become a citizen for five years, but hasn’t taken the final steps.
“I was nervous,” he said.
He said he was more nervous about showing proficiency in English, rather than proving he knows American history.
There are tens of thousands of people in Las Vegas like Martinez. Local Hispanic organizations estimate that perhaps 72,000 Latinos in southern Nevada are eligible to become citizens, but haven't yet done so.
Political scientist John Tuman, chairman of UNLV’s Department of Political Science, said hidden costs may account for the lack of urgency for legal residents to become citizens.
"And, many immigrants, including people who have lived here for a long time, are under the impression that they need legal assistance in order to apply for US citizenship," Tuman said. "And the fees associated with that legal assistance can be anywhere from $8,000 to $10,000.”
Latino organizations here are trying to counteract the misinformation. They’re staging so-called “citizenship workshops” in several western states. The events are non-partisan.
At one, all-day Saturday event in a vast ballroom at the Rio hotel and casino, volunteers are paired up with would-be citizens helping them fill out the citizenship application. Volunteers ask background questions such as, “Have you ever been arrested, cited or detained by law enforcement?” The applicants also answer questions about their marriage situation, employment and immigration history.
Maria, from Peru, is applying to become a citizen. She’s been a legal resident since 1990.
“Before, I didn’t have time because I was working, working, working,” she said. “I have three children, I was myself taking care of my children.”
She's not applying for any particular reason right now, though.
“I don’t know what kind of benefits I’ll have. I don’t know. I don’t know yet,” she said with nervous laughter.
Many in the room were similarly vague. Still, their inability to articulate the benefits of citizenship makes sense. After all, Tuman said research shows that citizenship doesn't usually lead to higher salaries compared to what legal residents can make.
So it’s often not worth the time, effort and cost to become a citizen. The application process alone costs $680.
“Now in these current times, $680 is the mortgage or the rent for some families,” said Hergit Llenas, with the Human Rights Campaign, one of the groups organizing this workshop.
Llenas is trying to show people that there are benefits to taking the last step to citizenship.
“I’ve been there so I know exactly what the difference is. For me, (there are) three key things. One is the ability to vote. Two, is the ability to apply for jobs that are only applicable for citizens,” she said, referring primarily to many government jobs. “And then, in my case, being a young Latina traveling, I was always treated like a mule or a young prostitute, when I was trying to just, like, backpack through Europe, and being capable and able to travel with a U.S. passport.”
Event organizers are stressing the importance of point one — voting. Artie Blanco with the group Mi Familia Vota spoke to a room of people arriving at the workshop.
“Latinos have power here in Nevada, Las Vegas, the United States. This is where we have a voice.” she told the group, in Spanish.
“We’re not going anywhere and we must participate in civic engagement," she said later.
Fernando Romero isn’t convinced speeches like this are enough to motivate Latinos to vote. He runs Nevada’s oldest Latino political organization, Hispanics in Politics. He said more Latinos aren’t becoming citizens, and those who are aren't voting, primarily because of apathy.
Romero said Latinos care foremost about the economy, education and healthcare, like everyone in America. But they also care deeply about immigration reform. Latinos in western states voted in large numbers in 2008 for President Barack Obama, and Romero said they feel let down.
“People are just not too enticed to come out and vote,” Romero said. “However, the more that the Republican primary goes, the harsher that the candidates are speaking out against the Latinos — and in fact making us the focal point of their ire, of their concern, of their ills of this country. It’s beginning to inspire many to just come out and vote. But not so much in favor of someone — in this case the re-election of President Obama, but against whomever will be the Republican candidate.”