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Trump Fuels Citizenship Drive Among Immigrants

It’s been almost half a century since Concepción Álvarez, a 75-year-old Mexican immigrant who lives in northern San Diego county, became eligible for U.S. citizenship.

But it wasn’t until this year that she decided to undergo the naturalization process. The reason? She points to Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.

“I think we are all waking up, because we’ve never heard things so ugly as what that man says,” Álvarez said.

Álvarez is among a rising number of Hispanic immigrants rushing to become citizens so they can vote in the 2016 presidential elections. Many say they are spurred by fear of Trump, who has proposed building a 2,000-mile wall between the United States and Mexico and deporting millions of immigrants.

Credit Jean Guerrero / KPBS
Lucero Martinez helps her mother, Eufrocina, prepare for the U.S. citizenship test, March 2, 2016.

“It seems he doesn’t like us, that man,” Álvarez said. “But we don’t like him either. We don’t want him to be president.”

Not all Hispanic immigrants feel the same way, as evidenced by Facebook groups with names like "Latinos/Hispanics for Trump." But out of dozens of those surveyed across San Diego County, those seeking naturalization this year said they were doing so to vote against Trump, not for him.

Nationwide citizenship applications totaled more than 202,000 during the fourth quarter of last year, up 14 percent for the same quarter in 2014, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

In San Diego County, the effect is most pronounced in certain neighborhoods, such as Chula Vista, just south of downtown San Diego. More than half of Chula Vista's population is Hispanic. Citizenship applications there jumped 40 percent in the fourth quarter of 2015, compared to the same period the previous year. About 8.8 million U.S. residents are eligible for citizenship.

The increased citizenship interest among Hispanics has contributed to a spike in programs meant to lend them a hand in the process, such as a series of workshops called Cultivando Liderazgo, led by the National Latino Research Center at Cal State University San Marcos.

“So what it means is essentially nurturing or cultivating leadership,” said director Arcela Nuñez-Álvarez.

The workshops are free and held in public spaces across the county, including libraries, schools and churches. The curriculum includes the content of the citizenship test and a review of U.S. politics and history, with activities designed to help immigrants memorize the material, such as games of Jeopardy. Additionally, the workshop leaders, Cal State University San Marcos volunteers, connect prospective citizens with lawyers and other resources to help them naturalize.

Civic engagement among the Hispanic community in the county is low considering the size of the population, Nuñez-Álvarez said, but the tide is shifting.

“Trump is definitely a big factor that I think is really pushing people to think about what kind of government we want to have, if he really represents immigrants, Latinos,” she said.

Preparing the Latino community with workshops

Nuñez-Álvarez led a Cultivando Liderazgo workshop on a recent Wednesday evening at the Vista Library.

She passed Crayola boxes to more than 20 immigrants, including Álvarez, who colored in a map of the United States to help herself memorize the names of the U.S.-Mexico and U.S.-Canada border states. One of the questions on the citizenship test asks applicants to name border states.

Álvarez has been attending these weekly workshops for three months with the hope of becoming a citizen in time for the coming presidential elections.

“I want Clinton’s wife to win,” Álvarez said. “She looks at us (Hispanics) with more affection, and her husband was a good president. I like her.”

Álvarez said what she most dislikes about Trump are his proposals to revoke the citizenship of children born to immigrants who are in the country illegally.

She recalls facing discrimination at a restaurant where a waiter didn’t want to serve her when she first arrived in the United States more than 50 years ago.

“Back then it didn’t hurt so much, I said, ‘whatever, it’s their country,’ but lately, no, we’ve done so much for this country,” she said, citing her management of a Mexican restaurant and her seven U.S.-citizen children. Some of her children are teachers and social workers.

“I think we belong now," Álvarez said. "It’s not fair for others to perceive us another way.”

She considers herself an American. Now, she just intends to make it official — thanks to Trump.

Recruiting the youth to help

Credit Jean Guerrero / KPBS
A California State University San Marcos volunteer leads a Cultivando Liderazgo workshop that helps immigrants prepare for the U.S. citizenship test, March 2, 2016.

Álvarez is going to take the U.S. citizenship test in Spanish because she is over 50 years old and has been in the country for more than 20 years, which exempts her from the English-language requirement.

But some immigrants must take the test in English to demonstrate fluency, such as Eufrocina Frías de Martinez, a 66-year-old Escondido resident who immigrated 16 years ago from the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi.

She has been eligible for citizenship for more than a decade, but she never gave naturalizing much thought until Trump’s rise. She said she wants to vote against him if he becomes the Republican presidential candidate.

“That man, I don’t know, it’s like he discriminates against us Hispanic people,” she said.

The problem is Martinez doesn’t speak English. But Cultivando Liderazgo has improvised a solution to situations like hers: recruiting young immigrants to help their parents and other community members prepare for citizenship.

Nuñez-Álvarez of Cultivando Liderazgo said young immigrants are often bilingual, unlike their parents. So students who learn the material can share the knowledge. Moreover, family is central in Hispanic culture, and immigrants are more likely to naturalize when encouraged by a relative.

Martinez’s 26-year-old daughter, Lucero, is a student at Cal State University San Marcos and is attending Cultivando Liderazgo workshops, which take over her regular Spanish class once a week.

After one of the workshops, she returned home and sat on the living room couch with her mother, reading from a list of more than 100 questions. She read the questions in English and then in Spanish, asking her mother to repeat the answers in both languages.

“In what month do we vote for a new president?” Lucero asked her mother in Spanish.

“Noviembre,” they said together.

“Es, ‘November,’” Lucero said, translating.

“November,” Eufrocina tried in her accent. “Novemb-reh.”

Eufrocina is not sure who she’s going to vote for yet. She just doesn’t want Trump to win.

“She completely hates him,” Lucero said, laughing. “I think we all do, as Latinos, Hispanics. He says that we’re not working, that we’re basically the opposite of the actual.”

Lucero said she hopes to vote for Democrat Hillary Clinton. "We've never had a woman (president), and I'm interested in what her perspective could be," she said.

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