What it looks like to become a US citizen in a contentious election year

The World
Woman holding up anti-Trump sign to to other women

Latino men in wide brimmed cowboy hats, Muslim women donning colorful headscarves and Jamaican nationals in finely pressed suits filed their way into a makeshift federal courtroom at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Clutching tiny American flags on the final day of their journey to citizenship, and with patriotic music blaring from speakers, more than 6,600 immigrants quickly find their seats.

These new citizens, sworn in on May 18, 2016, are the lucky ones.

Line of people with American flags, smiling, holding certificates
Over 6,600 immigrants from more than 130 countries were sworn in as new citizens of the United States at one naturalization ceremony in Los Angeles on May 18, 2016. The judge urged them at the end of the ceremony to register to vote.Todd Bigelow/Contact Press Images

The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) released startling statistics in September: There are more than half a million people waiting for their chance to become citizens — hopefully in time to vote on November 8. In the last year alone nearly 940,000 immigrants applied to become citizens, and 520,000 applications remain in limbo due to backlogs.

The number of applications to become citizens is up 32 percent this fiscal year over 2015. Jeffrey Carter, a spokesperson for the USCIS, told the New York Times the government expected an increased interest by immigrants during this election year, but “the increase has exceeded expectations.”

The National Partnership for New Americans, a collective of immigrant rights organizations, says its members have been running citizenship campaigns over the last year. The group calculated, based on expected wait times, that immigrants who completed their applications by June should be eligible to vote in November (PDF).

It’s unlikely that all that work will pay off the way they had hoped.

[[entity_id:"89120" entity_type:"node" entity_title:"Story Act: Learn more about Global Nation Reporting Fund"]]

Other organizations, across the political spectrum, have also worked to help immigrants to become citizens and register to vote.

From May to July, more than 10,000 immigrants completed their application process in time to take part in two USCIS naturalization ceremonies in Los Angeles. Republicans and Democrats recognized the importance of this new voting bloc early in the year and set out to woo the immigrant Americans — who could help decide the fate of the 2016 election.

Outside the Los Angeles Convention Center’s West Hall in May, groups of loyal political activists ready for battle as deadlines for voter registration draw near. Renee Nahum, political director for the LA Democratic Party, eyes a Republican Party operative who had moved to position herself in front of the doors where the thousands of new Americans would soon emerge.

“She’s not supposed to be there,” she says with a scornful tone to no one in particular.

Few political analysts dispute the significance of the immigrant vote in this election and the activists on the ground know what’s at stake.

Men in suits walk past crowd of cheering people
Friends and relatives cheer as the naturalized citizens work their way to the exit where they will be greeted by political activists intent on registering them to vote.

Back inside, on a stage where one could easily envision Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton appealing to their supporters from beneath a massive American flag, Judge Barry Russell arrives and promptly announces that the court will come to order. He warmly congratulates the immigrants who came from more than 130 countries for their milestone achievement. The immigrants watch a short video and pledge to defend their new country. The judge then declares that they all are now citizens of the United States. Tears and hugs ensue, and the judge reminds them of their responsibility to vote before they leave.

Back outside, the word spreads: “They’re coming out.” Two women first exit the hall into choreographed chaos. Nahum and a colleague jump into action with their anti-Trump message, urging the two women to register as Democrats. Without breaking stride, the women continued on their way.

A few feet away, Reynoldo Lopez, 55, knows the routine. He has done this many times before as a volunteer for the Democrats. His job is to appeal to the immigrants by displaying a photo of an angry-looking Donald Trump with a slash through it that he taped to the back of his voter registration clipboard.

Shouts of “Congratulations! Have you registered?” echo off the glass doors where thousands of newly-minted citizens stride into the political scrum. The shouts come from both the left and the right, figuratively and literally, as operatives jockey for position.

Man holds up anti-Trump sign to a woman in the middle of crowd
"Congratulations! Have you registered to vote?" shouts a Republican Party activist, left, as Democratic Party activist Reynoldo Lopez confronts the new Americans with an anti-Trump sign. Both political parties set up tables immediately outside a swearing-in ceremony at the Los Angeles Convention Center, where they battle to register new citizens in time to vote in the 2016 election.

Nahum and Lopez, both with their anti-Trump registration clipboards, try to appeal especially to the increasingly influential Latinos. But Republican volunteer Shirley Thomas, standing just a few feet away in her Trump T-shirt and “Make America Great Again” hat, is equally determined.

She counters the Democrats with open arms and warm wishes, while trying to steer some of the new citizens toward the Republican booth.

“They’re always in a hurry,” she tells me later.

As more immigrants fill the walkway, the cacophony of greetings and registration questions grows louder and louder until it all sounds like one overzealous infomercial. Then, a joyous shrill breaks the rhythmic noise.

“Woohoo!” exclaims Shannan Calland, who thrusts her arm in the air after nabbing a new voter for the Democrats.

Woman holding clipboard gives a thumbs up to another woman, with other around cheering
Shannan Calland, center, cheers as a new American is registered to vote for the Democratic party.

Standing only a few feet away, the small team of Trump backers seem unfazed. Trump volunteers have a tough job trying to lure immigrants. But Thomas sees it differently.

“Every immigrant knows of Donald Trump,” she says. “They see our Republican sign and say ‘Trump, Trump’ with thumbs up. No one has ever mentioned any other candidate over the past year.”

Two women, wearing Trump paraphernalia, try to move a man over to a table
Donald Trump supporter, Shirley Thomas, left, tries to guide a man who just earned his citizenship papers to a table to register as a Republican. After several moments of apparent confusion, the man walked off without registering with either party.

She repositions herself as the pace of new Americans exiting the ceremony picks up. Thomas quickly grabs an older Latino man who had just exited the hall. With a hand on the man’s arm, she and another volunteer gently coax him toward the Republican table where he sits down. He seems overwhelmed and confused. He stays at the table for several minutes before simply getting up and leaving.

Three portraits of people holding small American flags
(Left to right) Jesus Ramirez, 90, became a citizen in May and immediately registered as a Democrat. He says he plans to vote in the 2016 election. Esteban Orozco Infante, 61, says he wants a voice after years of hard work in this country. He registered with the Democratic Party and says he will vote for Hillary Clinton. Maria Murcia, 81, also registered with the Democratic Party says she will vote for Clinton.

By the July citizenship ceremony, the chairs at the booth proudly displaying a cardboard cut-out of Ronald Reagan were mostly empty while only a few feet away it was standing-room only for the Democrats.

Volunteers sitting in chairs at an otherwise empty booth, large Ronald Reagan cutout on left
A trio of Republican Party vote-getters at their table where they hope to register new Americans following a citizenship ceremony on July 20, 2016.
Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.