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Donald Trump’s emergence fuels naturalization efforts locally, nationally

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Donald Trump officially kicked off his presidential campaign in June by labeling Mexicans as drug traffickers and rapists. His declaration that the security wall he envisions the Mexican government will pay for “just got 10 feet higher!” – electrifies the thousands of fans who attend his rallies nationwide.

While such statements have made Trump an unexpected favorite to win the GOP presidential nomination, it’s also the last thing that the now much-derided GOP establishment ever hoped, or imagined, would be the dialogue being espoused by their leading candidate.

In the Growth and Opportunity Project report issued in the aftermath of the 2012 president election, the authors of the Republican National Committee-sanctioned paper wrote that “if we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity … Our Party has an incredible opportunity on our hands, but we must seize it enthusiastically.”

How’s that working out?

In response to the Trump phenomenon, Latino activist groups are holding naturalization workshops to get more eligible immigrants to become citizens this fall, just in time to participate in this year’s general election.

Over the weekend, such workshops — part of the “Stand up to Hate” campaign to stop Trump — were held across the country.

In West Tampa on Saturday, a naturalization workshop sponsored by the SEIU Florida and the League of United Latin American Citizens was conducted, though they eschewed any mention of politics.

“There’s a lot of people in our community who are legal permanent residents and who understand that they’ve been here for several years, and they have just not taken that step to become a citizen, and we want to help them take that step forward,” said Pamela Gomez with the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

That process begins by informing people about filling out an N-400 form. Once that’s received by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service officials, eligible applicants then must be fingerprinted before ultimately getting an interview with a federal immigration official. That process takes about five months, which means it’s crucial that those who want to be eligible to vote in November begin their paperwork now.

Applicants must also pay a $680 naturalization fee, though officials at Saturday’s meeting discussed how those who might struggle in paying that price might receive assistance getting it waived.

Currently waiting for an interview is Mike Nunez, 61, a Canadian citizen who has lived in Tampa since 1998. Most of that time, he acknowledged, he wasn’t that motivated to try to become a U.S. citizen.

However, he started to become engrossed watching the presidential debates last fall. “I want to vote,” he said. “That’s the main reason.”

Nunez attended a naturalization workshop last December to get the paperwork moving. He was contacted last week by federal immigration officials, and says he should be getting an interview within the next few weeks.

Nunez wouldn’t commit to FloridaPolitics.com about who he’s supporting if he gets the franchise.

There are about 8.8 million legal residents eligible to naturalize, and about 2.7 million are Mexicans. However, only 36 percent of eligible Mexicans have become citizens, while 68 percent of all other immigrants have done so, according to the Pew Research Center.

Officials say that naturalization rates tend to perk up in election years. However, the emergence of Trump and his controversial comments regarding Mexicans and Muslims this election year could see those numbers expand.

About 660,000 immigrants naturalize annually, Illinois Democratic U.S. Rep.  Luis Gutierrez said recently. The plan this year is to increase that by a third.

“Our goal is to have 1 million immigrants to become new U.S. citizens this year. And we’ve got to get it done by the end of May,” he said during a conference call in January.

Mitch Perry has been a reporter with Extensive Enterprises since November of 2014. Previously, he served as five years as the political editor of the alternative newsweekly Creative Loafing. He also was the assistant news director with WMNF 88.5 FM in Tampa from 2000-2009, and currently hosts MidPoint, a weekly talk show, on WMNF on Thursday afternoons. He began his reporting career at KPFA radio in Berkeley. He's a San Francisco native who has now lived in Tampa for 15 years and can be reached at mitch.perry@floridapolitics.com.

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