Appealing to Latino voters will be crucial come November. That's been well publicized. Hispanics account for 16 percent of the population, and every month an estimated 18,000 Latinos in the US are turning 18.
But it's a dormant group: Latinos are less likely to vote than any other ethnic group. Take the case of 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. They may be eligible, but haven't bothered to go thru the citizenship process. A lawful permanent resident can apply for citizenship after five years of residency, or three years if married to a US citizen.
In a small trailer in downtown Las Vegas, about 20 people are bothering with the process thru 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 DC."
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 says.
I asked him, if he was nervous about the language requirement or the history questions?
"Probably the language," he responds.
Why Lawful Permanent Residents Don't Become Citizens
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, also called becoming naturalized.
I asked political scientist John Tuman, chair of UNLV's Department of Political Science, why there isn't more urgency for legal residents to take the last step toward becoming US citizens?
"Well, that's a good question," said Tuman. "A lot of advocates in the community here have talked about the fact that there hidden costs associated with naturalization. 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. 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 out there. They're staging so-called "citizenship workshops" throughout several western states. The events are non-partisan.
I attended one all-day Saturday event held in a vast ballroom at the Rio hotel and casino.
At about a hundred small tables, 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, and employment and immigration history.
Maria, from Peru, is applying to become a citizen. She's been a legal resident since 1990. I asked her what's taken her so long to apply for citizenship?
"Before, I don't have time because I was working, working, working," she said. "I have three children, I was myself taking care of my children."
As to what benefits she sees in becoming a citizen now?
"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. (Maybe because they were uncomfortable speaking in English to a reporter.) Still, their inability to articulate the benefits of citizenship makes sense. After all, John Tuman at UNLV said that research shows that citizens, in many jobs — such as union jobs, which Vegas has plenty — don't earn higher salaries than legal residents.
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.
"Well 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 thru Europe, and being capable and able to travel with a US passport, it was day and night."
Event organizers are stressing the importance of point #1 — voting. Artie Blanco with the group Mi Familia Vota spoke to a room of people arriving at the workshop.
In Spanish, she said, "Latinos have power here in Nevada, Las Vegas, the United States. This is where we have a voice." She later told me, "We're not going anywhere and we must participate in civic engagement."
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. I asked him why more Latinos here aren't becoming citizens, and why more Latino citizens aren't voting?
Romero says 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 for President Obama in 2008, and Romero says they feel let down.
"People are just not to enticed to come out and vote," said Romero. "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 President Obama — but against whomever will be the Republican candidate."
The Democrats know this. And they're trying to let Latinos know, that the Republican Party is no friend of theirs.
Artie Blanco with Mi Familia Vota address aspiring US citizens. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
A citizenship workshop where volunteers pair up with legal US residents, helping them fill out citizenship papers. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
Teacher Martha Mynatt helps Alvaro Martinez prepare for the US citizenship exam. (Photo: Jason Margolis)
An information table at a citizenship workshop at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas. (Photo: Jason Margolis)