STATEMENT: As We Celebrate Independence Day, Many New Citizens Still Left Out Of American Democracy

Release Date: 
June 29, 2010

Washington—As the nation celebrates the 234th Independence Day this July Fourth, thousands of immigrants will take the citizenship oath at naturalization ceremonies around the country. Yet, the promise of full participation in our democracy continues to elude many of our newest fellow citizens, up to millions around the country, according to a new report by the nonpartisan public policy center Demos. The study proposes that new United States citizens should be given voter registration opportunities, which is allowable under existing federal law but currently not in practice, the day they take the oath of citizenship.

The report, entitled A Citizen From Day One, is authored by Tova Wang, who is a Senior Fellow at Demos and one of the nation's leading voting rights and election reform experts. Wang's report shows how naturalized citizens continue to be under-represented in America's democracy by consistently lower voter participation in elections than natural-born citizens. It also shows that, in the last several decades, the numbers of newly naturalized citizens has increased dramatically, which points to a potentially growing under-representation in the American electorate of new citizens.

"A Citizen From Day One" shows a clear path to increasing voter participation of new citizens by proposing that US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) offices provide voter registration opportunities and assistance to all newly naturalized citizens right after they take the oath of citizenship. The proposal outlines how these sites can be designated to offer voter registration under the mandates of the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA).

"While Americans may debate the best way to bring noncitizens into the civic life of our communities, there is widespread, strong agreement that when someone from another country takes the affirmative step to take the oath of loyalty and become a citizen of this country, he or she should be welcomed and encouraged to be a part of our country and our social and political life," said Wang. "Designating USCIS offices under the mandates of the NVRA, which are extremely effective when properly implemented, is the most obvious and direct way to bring more new US citizens into our civic life and our democracy."

Key facts from the report:

--There were 38 million immigrants living in the United States as of 2008, of which 43% were naturalized U.S. citizens. Nearly one out of every four people in the United States in 2008 was either an immigrant or the child of an immigrant.

--Naturalizations grew at a record pace between 2006 and 2008, with a total of 2.4 million immigrants becoming new citizens in the United States during that time. The number of persons naturalized in the United States increased 58 percent from 660,477 in 2007 to an all-time record of 1,046,539 in 2008.

-- New Americans have not been participating in elections on par with their native-born counterparts. In 2008, a year of historic turnout generally and enormous interest in the election, the turnout numbers for naturalized citizens barely improved relative to previous elections. Nationwide, turnout among the native born was 64.4 percent, while among naturalized Americans it was 54 percent. The disparities in certain states were particularly stark.

--It is not that new Americans don't want to participate—once they are registered, immigrants vote overwhelmingly, reinforcing the need to facilitate voter registration. When they are registered, they vote at rates on par with native born Americans.

-- In 2004, 72.9% of native born Americans were registered, while only 61.2 percent of naturalized citizens were. At the time of the 2006 general election just over half (54.3%) of naturalized citizens were registered to vote by Election Day. Native citizens were registered at a rate of 68.6% during the 2006 election—a nearly 15 percentage point discrepancy. In 2008, 71.8% of native born Americans were registered, while just 60.5% of naturalized Americans were registered to vote.

--Where fully implemented, the agency provisions of the NVRA have been extremely effective. and suggest a likelihood of success by USCIS at naturalization ceremonies. For example, In Missouri, following litigation to require compliance with the NVRA's requirements, that state's Department of Social Services has submitted over 218,000 voter registration applications to election officials, an average of over 11,000 per month. In the two years prior to the court order, the state's public assistance agencies averaged only 649 registrations per month. In North Carolina over 104,000 citizens have applied to register to vote through public assistance agencies over three years of full compliance.

"On this 4th of July, like others before it, thousands of immigrants are pledging their allegiance to the United States all across the country. It is time, systematically and uniformly, to give every new citizen the most basic, simple tool to becoming part of our democracy: new citizens should be uniformly provided voter registration services and assistance at their naturalization ceremonies," said Wang. "As we approach another federal election season, this is a policy that should be implemented as soon as is feasible."

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