Newly minted American citizens could sway the 2024 election — if they vote

Razia Shalizi, an immigrant from Afghanistan who became a U.S. citizen in 2024, said she plans to vote for the first time in 2024. “I’m going to be voting this year for women’s rights,” she said. “I wish, for all women, to have their rights and their freedoms.” Photo by Gloria Rebecca Gomez | Arizona Mirror

More than 100,000 Arizona residents are eligible to become U.S. citizens, and voter mobilization groups are counting on them to make a difference in the upcoming election. 

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services agency estimates that as many as 177,171 lawful permanent residents who call the Grand Canyon State their home qualify for naturalization. 

And while many of them likely have not yet embarked on the costly and lengthy hurdle that the naturalization process represents, between 2016 and 2020 more than 62,000 people in Arizona did become naturalized citizens. Even that number has the potential to sway election results in a swing state known for tight races, said Nicole Melaku, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans. 

“The 2020 election (for president in Arizona) was decided by just 10,000 votes, so if there’s 62,000 newly naturalized citizens here in Arizona, I’m going to ascertain that there’s a portion of them that will deeply influence the outcome of this year’s election,” she told the Mirror on Tuesday, during a nationwide campaign launched to mobilize naturalized voters.  

The campaign to recruit newly naturalized voters kicked off on Tuesday, the 14-year anniversary of the signing of SB1070, Arizona’s notorious anti-immigrant “show me your papers” law that greenlit racial profiling. Alejandra Gomez, executive director of Arizona Center for Empowerment, highlighted that contrast. She said that, while the GOP-majority legislature has recently harkened back to that anti-immigrant era by proposing several discriminatory measures this session, Latino advocacy organizations are now better equipped to mount a defense. 

“Fourteen years ago, I felt caught off guard,” Gomez said. “Our organizing community was still in development. Today, I do not feel caught off guard.” 

Part of that organizing effort is the annual campaign to connect with newly naturalized voters, which ramps up during election cycle years. Gomez said ACE’s sister organization, Living United for Change in Arizona, has committed to knocking on one million doors this election cycle. And ACE itself works to connect with voters across the state, coordinating with the Mexican consulate to identify potential voters and launching online advertisements. 

While ACE has statewide reach, the organization, and most other pro-immigrant groups, is focused in Maricopa County, where the majority of Latino residents and those eligible to begin the naturalization process live. According to USCIS, as many as 123,610 lawful permanent residents who qualify for naturalization live in the Phoenix-Mesa-Chandler area.

Petra Falcon, the head of immigrant advocacy group Promise Arizona, added that newly naturalized citizens could be a balance tipping force in the November election and a significant force for change beyond that.  

“In Arizona alone, the outcome of the 2020 presidential election was determined by just 10,000 votes, illustrating not just the power of every vote, but the undeniable influence of new citizens in our electoral landscape,” she said. “(With) 177,000 residents eligible for naturalization, our potential to shape the future is immense and growing.”

While advocates tout the potential influence of naturalized voters in Arizona, the tricky part lies in mobilizing them to begin with. Only about 10% of residents across the country who are eligible to naturalize do so every year. And voting participation among newly naturalized citizens is equally dismal. In 2016, only 54% of naturalized voters cast a ballot, compared to 62% of U.S. born citizens

Still, Hispanic and Asian naturalized citizens are likelier to vote than U.S. born Hispanic or Asian voters, signaling that the voting bloc is highly interested in participating. 

Nejra Sumic, the national field manager for We Are All America, which advocates on behalf of refugees and asylum seekers, urged newly naturalized citizens to take action this election cycle. Sumic, who was a refugee from Bosnia and Herzegovina, said that this year’s election is especially important and every vote is critical. 

“There is a lot at stake this election year, particularly here in Arizona,” she said. “We are facing tremendous issues that are directly impacting our communities. Housing is skyrocketing and people are losing their homes, ending up on the streets…inflation is through the roof. We have women’s reproductive rights currently under attack.”

Newly eligible voters can be a part of the solution by electing better leaders, Sumic added, instead of politicians who she said are more concerned with their careers than with backing helpful policies. 

“We have people in power who are not in it for the right reasons and creating further divisiveness among people, and passing legislation that is harming our communities,” she said. “Many of these elected officials are going to be up for reelection in November.”

The Arizona legislature is up for grabs this election, along with several seats in Congress that both the Republican and Democratic parties are vying over to cement control at the federal level. 

Razia Shalizi is one newly minted Arizonan who will make her voice heard in November. The 24-year-old fled Afghanistan with her family in 2018 and became a citizen last year. While she hasn’t yet registered to vote, she plans to do so before the Oct. 7 deadline, and her top concern is reproductive freedom. 

The Arizona Abortion Access Act, which is headed for the November ballot, seeks to enshrine abortion as a right in the state constitution, voiding efforts from the Arizona Republicans to ban access to the procedure and nullifying an 1864 near-total ban that is set to be reimplemented in June. Now that she’s a citizen, Shalizi said, she’s looking forward to casting her ballot for what she believes in. 

“I’m going to be voting this year for women’s rights,” she said. “I wish, for all women, to have their rights and their freedoms.”

And 25-year-old Alex Jurua is focused on backing pro-immigrant candidates. The native of the Republic of Congo is set to finally become a citizen in June. As someone who is both an immigrant and who works with other immigrants, Jurua said hearing hostile rhetoric from lawmakers is disheartening. Once he becomes a citizen, he said he plans to be an active voter and inform as many people as he can about which politicians care about and advocate for all Arizonans, no matter their national origin.  

“When I become a citizen, I will start voting, and I will start electing people that are willing to respond to our views or to our feelings — who will respect our dignity and respect us for who we are,” he said.

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