Naturalized Citizens and Voting
By Belinda Nam
As a citizen, I celebrate my right to vote because I understand that voting is one of my most important civil rights. I would never want to take this civil right for granted, so I registered to vote in 2016 because I know my voice matters. There was urgency in the air on my college campus — faculty and students genuinely wanted eligible voters to register and then to actually vote. As a woman of color, I followed this past election closely because politics intimately affects the people I care about and me. I was 21 when I registered to vote as a native-born citizen, and I was the first in my family to vote.
I could easily register to vote because of my native-born status. But I couldn’t help but think about my parents who are first-generation immigrants from South Korea. My mother is currently in the process of applying for citizenship, and my father is a naturalized citizen. My mom doesn’t have a right to vote until she becomes a naturalized citizen, and my dad didn’t have the right to vote until a decade ago. This sparked my curiosity — are eligible naturalized citizens more or less likely to vote than their natural-born counterparts?
The relationship a naturalized citizen has with voting is complex. Many factors, like age, region of origin, and years residing, impact whether or not a person will vote, but the statistics generally show that naturalized citizens are less likely to register and vote than their native-born counterparts.
The relationship may be complicated, but there are still some patterns and trends we can look at to draw correlational conclusions. A naturalized citizen may be more likely to register to vote and vote if they didn’t have the right to vote at their native-born country; conversely, a naturalized citizen may be more likely to register to vote and vote if voting was important in their native-born country. Perhaps unsurprisingly, an individual may be less likely to register to vote and vote if they are still emotionally connected to their native-born country.
The data shows that the most crucial factors to predict whether a naturalized citizen will vote are duration in the United States, their education level, and how long they’ve lived at their current address. The naturalized citizens “with more education, a longer length of time at current residence, and a longer length of time in the U.S. are more likely to register and vote.” For example, naturalized citizens are more likely to vote if they have at least some college education or if they have been at their current residence for five years or more.
Of course, statistics can’t tell every story. And my parents are proof. My parents have lived in the states for over 25 years, but my dad didn’t vote in the past election. When I asked him why, his answer was simple: “Illinois goes blue.” There are a handful of states like California, Illinois, and New York that “always” go blue in elections (conversely, Texas, Alabama, and Idaho “always” go red). Nonvoters commonly cite living in one of these states as a core reason for not voting. My parents followed this election because there were more conversations about topics that affected them than ever before — like immigration, our relationship with South and North Korea, and healthcare. My dad may have relied on Illinois going blue, but I wonder if he would have voted in a swing state. I wonder if he would have voted if he felt a positive push from his community to vote like I did at my college. I wonder if he will vote during the next election.
Surges for citizen applications correspond with world events. Naturalizations tend to rise during presidential election years. Between 2007 and 2008, there was a 59% increase in naturalizations thanks to the upcoming 2008 presidential election and “an impending increase in naturalization application fees.”
Naturalizations increased in 2016 compared to 2015. According to the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, “applications by lawful permanent residents to naturalize and become voting-eligible citizens were up to 32% over the previous year.” GOP candidate Donald Trump raised the stakes for immigration, race and gender during his campaign.
There were comments from candidates that targeted immigrants — specifically immigrants from Mexico. These comments motivated native-born citizens to vote; it also inspired and pushed immigrants to apply for citizenship and become naturalized to register and vote. In the United States, naturalized citizens are nearly 9% of all eligible voters. It may seem small, but this percentage can change the outcome of an election.
There are barriers that prevent all of us from engaging with American politics, but these obstacles are amplified for immigrants. A language barrier makes it difficult to understand what’s happening around the world. A community that lacks resources to provide accessible registration information can make the process of voting intimidating and challenging, which can discourage people from participating in politics. If someone doesn’t have access to the news, it’s nearly impossible to see what’s at stake in his or her lives. The first step, then, is to overcome these obstacles. However, even if these barriers can be mediated, we need to find a call-to-action to inspire these apathetic citizens to get involved. What’s something they can do to do that? Voting is one of the best ways to voice your opinion on what is happening in your country. Whether you are an immigrant, a naturalized citizen, a high school student who isn’t old enough to vote yet, a graduate student, or anything in-between, politics should be on your radar.
Ultimately, if you reside in America, politics affects you and you should care.
You already care, whether you realize it or not. As Americans, we have to stress this so that more people are willingly engaging with the politics. If you want a say in how politics proceeds, becoming a naturalized citizen will give you the right to vote in elections. All it takes is one click to learn about applying for citizenship as an immigrant, or registering to vote online.
Belinda Nam is the content intern at NewFounders (formerly RISE). NewFounders is comprised of design, tech and innovative thinkers that believe in unity through problem solving. See more at www.newfounders.us.