Republican frontrunner Donald Trump has pledged to deport and keep out illegal immigrants, but the brash billionaire’s rhetoric is inspiring some Hispanics to become citizens so they can vote against him.
“I feel threatened by the political situation,” said Maria Orozco, a 36-year-old screenwriter in Los Angeles.
She is a legal permanent resident, a status that provides “some security, but the immigration laws are changing constantly and I don’t know what might happen if Trump wins,” she told AFP, speaking in Spanish.
“In 15 years here, I’ve never felt such a hostile political climate,” Orozco said, concluding: “I want to vote against Trump.”
She is not alone.
Across the United States, home to more than 55 million Latinos who comprise about 17 percent of the population, thousands who are eligible for citizenship are preparing applications, hoping to submit them by May so they can be processed in time to register for the November 8 presidential vote.
Immigrant rights groups that are handling applications said they are expecting a deluge at the end of April.
Naturalization applications are up 11 percent in fiscal year 2015 over the previous year, and 14 percent higher during the six months ending in January, The New York Times reported, citing federal figures.
Since the start of his campaign, Trump has demonized immigrants, vowing to deport the 11 million in the United States illegally, most of whom are from Latin America.
He has also promised he would force Mexico to build a wall along its border, after declaring in his presidential announcement speech in June that Mexican immigrants are drug dealers, criminals and rapists, though he added that “some, I assume, are good people.”
According to the Obama administration, about 8.8 million people are eligible for US citizenship, including 2.7 million Mexicans.
About 13 million Hispanic voters are expected to participate in the November election.
– Anger and fear –
California, the most populous state, which traditionally votes for Democratic candidates, has the largest number of Latinos and also has received the most citizenship applications.
In Los Angeles County alone, home to the West Coast metropolis with 10 million inhabitants, a whopping 750,000 people are eligible for citizenship.
But the trend is also apparent in the swing states of Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida, where a strong turnout by Latino voters could tip the balance in a close election.
“There’s always been a push for naturalization,” said Tara Raghuveer, deputy director of the National Partnership for New Americans immigrant rights organization.
“We are sustaining that push, but we are also using that political moment, that political climate conflict as a mobilizing factor to organize our communities because our people are angry and they feel afraid.”
Juana Salinas, who has worked as a maid in a Las Vegas hotel for nearly 20 years, took the first step toward citizenship a few weeks ago.
One of the biggest obstacles was the cost, with each application costing $680.
“It’s a lot of money for us, but this time we really wanted to find it,” said the 58-year-old woman, born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
“What Mr Trump said about us is terrible, and the only way to close the valve is to vote,” she said in Spanish.
Many immigrants have dragged their feet on applying for citizenship, due to apathy, not knowing who qualified or not understanding the benefits.
“People do not know that citizenship is the only thing that protects them from deportation and that it can open the door for legalization of relatives,” said Jorge-Mario Cabrera, spokesman for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
Aware that there’s an information gap — and perhaps hoping to draw more voters who will support Democratic candidates — the White House launched a massive campaign six months ago urging qualified immigrants to become citizens.
But beyond fear of Trump and his policies, the political rhetoric has awakened a sense of patriotism among many Hispanics.
“I really love this country,” Orozco said. “I am doing really well here and it would make me so sad to leave. This is my home.”