News Column

Hispanics shouldn't forfeit votes

May 5, 2014

The solution seems simple enough.

Hispanics make up 17% of the U.S. population, but they remain vastly underrepresented in Congress, accounting for 7% of the members of the House of Representatives and 3% of the Senate. Only 56% of Hispanic green-card holders apply for U.S. citizenship, which means Hispanics have a lower voter participation rate (48%) than blacks or whites.

That's why each election season you see a large number of groups scrambling to get Hispanics to apply for citizenship and, eventually, register to vote.

On Monday, a high-profile group led by actress Eva Longoria and Democratic National Committee finance chairman Henry MuÑoz III launched the Latino Victory Project to do just that. Across the country, smaller groups are organizing citizenship and voter registration seminars to walk Hispanics through the application process.

There are a number of reasons Hispanic immigrants hesitate when thinking about applying to become citizens.

Some simply aren't sure they want to stay in the USA. George Cabrera, president of ASPIRA of Florida, a non-profit organization that helps young Hispanics receive education and leadership training, says many of the parents he encounters from Central and South America come here to work, raise their kids and save money, but eventually they want to go home.

"It makes sense, because when you look at the financial difference, you can live like a millionaire there," he says.

Others can't afford the price of admission. With the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services charging $680 to apply -- a process that can get far more costly for those who need an immigration attorney -- the opportunity can become too expensive.

The biggest deterrent, however, is fear of the unknown.

Sajan Kurian is an Indian immigrant who studied at Einstein Medical Center in Philadelphia. He worked as a CT scan technologist for decades and now works for Florida state Rep. Shervin Jones. Kurian held off on applying for citizenship for more than 20 years because he didn't know what would happen if his application was rejected.

"The fear factor was, 'What if? What if something goes wrong?'" he says.

That's why Kurian joined several South Florida groups Monday as they kicked off efforts to counsel the large Hispanic community here. The fear factor that Kurian experienced only increases for Hispanics, many of whom are related to or live with undocumented immigrants.

Applying to become a citizen includes detailed questions about the family -- parents, children, spouse, even previous spouses. Cabrera says it scares people to give the government vital details of loved ones they know are in the country illegally.

Immigrants have different reasons for being here. Many from Brazil and Argentina want to invest their money here because of the uncertain business climate back home. Some from Venezuela and Cuba are fleeing political strife. Many Central Americans and Mexicans are running away from violent drug wars or simply want to provide a better future for their children.

But all of them forfeit their ability to reshape the country if they don't become citizens and can't vote. The 2014 elections could seriously alter the makeup of Congress and statehouses. However daunting it can be to file for citizenship, it's the only way Hispanics can play a part as big as their numbers.

Gomez is a Miami-based correspondent for USA TODAY

Charles Dharapak, AP

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Source: USA Today

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