Image: Michael Chertoff and Patrick Leahy
Chip Somodevilla  /  Getty Images
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff chats with Judiciary Committee Chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., just before Leahy assailed him for slow processing of citizenship applications at an April 2 hearing.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/1/2008 8:49:08 AM ET 2008-07-01T12:49:08

WASHINGTON — Washington is seeing a revival of a 1996 partisan election-year battle over the processing of citizenship applications — in reverse.

Twelve years ago, Republicans protested what they said was a rushed approval by the Clinton administration of new citizens who, the GOP feared, would be Democratic voters. This time, it’s Democrats complaining that the Bush White House is dragging its feet over the approval of new citizens.

At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in April, Democratic senators accused Secretary Michael Chertoff, head of the Department of Homeland Security, of failing to ensure prompt processing of citizenship applications.

As a result, the Democrats implied, the number of new immigrant voters in November’s election would be held down.

“Can you assure that those who applied for U.S. citizenship before March 31, 2008, that they're actually going to be able to get that citizenship in time to vote in this election?” demanded Judiciary Committee chairman Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt.

Or, Leahy said, is there “an effort made to make sure they don't vote in the next election?”

A cynical view?
The Vermont Democrat added, “I don't mean to be cynical.” But he implied that Chertoff's department will “get through some (of the applicants for citizenship) very quickly after the presidential election, not before.”

Chertoff answered that he would not allow Leahy’s accusation to “linger in the air.” He said a record number of people would qualify for naturalization. “There'll be over a million, as our current estimation, which is far more than any prior year,” he told Leahy.

But he acknowledged that “there may be a significant number” of applicants for naturalization who had applied as of March 31 “that don't make it through” in time to register to vote.

Many states have registration deadlines 30 days before the election.

Chertoff's department saw nearly a doubling of citizenship applications between fiscal year 2006 and 2007.

Increase in application fee
The Democrats mauled Chertoff for not hiring more personnel since he knew that in previous years when there had been an increase in naturalization fees, as there was last year, and a presidential election looming, there had been a surge in new applications for citizenship.

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Election A to ZThe application fee was increased last July from $330 to $595.

There was a whiff of déjà vu about the Democrats’ election-year tussle with Chertoff, and Chertoff himself explained why: “Ten years ago there was a blistering IG (Inspector General’s) report relating to the 1996 naturalizations, which were riddled with fraud and misconduct. We're not going to repeat that. We're going to be secure….”

The politics this year are reminiscent of the 1996 scrimmage over immigrant voters. Then it was the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton creating a program called Citizenship USA to accelerate processing of petitions for naturalization.

Republicans saw a political motive in what the Immigration and Naturalization Service (now called Citizenship and Immigration Services) was doing: swearing in large numbers of new citizens in the hopes that they would vote Democratic in the 1996 elections.

Video: John McCain on immigration As it turned out, Clinton cruised to a comfortable re-election over Republican Bob Dole. But it looked in 1995, only a few months after the smashing GOP congressional win in the 1994 elections, as though ‘96 might be a close election.

The Justice Department’s non-partisan watchdog, the Inspector General, concluded after an investigation that the Clinton administration’s citizenship speed-up resulted in the INS doing slipshod background checks on thousands of applicants.

The Inspector General’s report also revealed that Clinton administration officials were sensitive about allegations that they might be waving through dubious applicants in order to bulk up Clinton’s vote.

“To blunt any charge that we are running a citizenship/Clinton voter mill, I am working with the FBI to find a way to tighten up the ridiculously loose fingerprint check system,” Clinton administration official Douglas Farbrother wrote in one March 1996 e-mail to his colleagues. Farbrother worked for Vice President Al Gore’s National Performance Review (also known as Reinventing Government.)

They had the election in mind
In its July 2000 report, the IG’s office said, “The prospect of an impending general election was present in the thinking of a number of White House officials who pressed INS to accelerate its naturalization efforts.” But that did not prove there was “improper partisan motivation,” the IG report concluded.

Video: Barack Obama on immigration One of the origins of the naturalization speedup was a meeting between Clinton and Daniel Solis, who was then head of a group called United Neighborhood Organization in Chicago and is now a Democratic alderman in Chicago.

Solis attended a September 1994 Democratic fundraising event and was seated near Clinton. Solis told the president that there were more than 5 million potential new citizens in the United States.

According to Solis, Clinton said there should be an effort to register them to vote. But they had to be naturalized first, Solis pointed out. He told the president that research showed that newly naturalized citizens tended to vote at a higher rate than other citizens.

Citizenship USA got underway in late 1995, prompted in part by grassroots activists such as Solis.

Solis was correct about newly naturalized Latinos tending to vote at a higher rate than native-born Latinos.

But that trend doesn’t hold true for all naturalized Americans.

The Census Bureau says that in the 2004 election, 64 percent of native-born citizens voted (or at least told Census interviewers that they did), while only 54 percent of naturalized citizens cast ballots.

Among Latinos, 52 percent of naturalized citizens voted in 2004, compared to only 45 percent of native-born Latinos.

In a research paper published earlier this year, Census Bureau demographers Sarah Crissey and Thom File explain the gap between native-born and naturalized voting rates by citing four decades of research which “suggests that citizens who are connected to and invested in society are more likely to participate in political endeavors” such as voting, while immigrants “who are potentially less connected and invested are less likely to participate.”

Perhaps nothing can get immigrants “connected and invested” more quickly than a perceived threat to their kin and fellow immigrants. Many naturalized citizens have family members who are non-citizens, either illegal immigrants or legal permanent residents.

Getting immigrants “connected and invested” could be decisive in some states in November.

Nevada, which President Bush carried by 21,500 votes in 2004, has a large Latino immigrant population. “Over 27,000 new Latino registrations have come in within one year,” said Efrain Escobedo, the Senior Director of Civic Engagement at the the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Educational Fund.

Those 27,000 could reverse the 2004 Nevada outcome, if they cast ballots.

Fierce immigration battle in 2006
The 2006 Senate debate over immigration seemed to be heading toward enactment of a law to give many illegal immigrants a way to earn legal status. But the bill collapsed in the face of fierce opposition, mostly, but not entirely, from Republicans.

The Senate’s rejection of the so-called Dream Act last October revealed that voter opposition to legalization had not abated. The Dream Act would have legalized many illegal immigrants under the age of 30.

Opposition was strong in the Midwest, the South, and the Mountain West. Montana’s two Democratic senators, Max Baucus and Jon Tester, voted against moving forward with the bill, as did Democrats Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kent Conrad of North Dakota.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Sen. Barack Obama voted for the bill. Sen. John McCain, now the presumptive GOP nominee, skipped the vote.

The debate over the Dream Act and other forms of legalization may mobilize immigrants to become citizens and then vote. At least that seems to be the hope and expectation of some Democrats.

But ironically, the white-hot opposition to the bipartisan 2007 immigration bill now has no electoral outlet, at least in balloting for president. It was McCain who led the effort to enact the 2007 bill and it will be McCain atop the Republican ticket this fall.

In his speech to the NALEO convention last weekend, McCain made a point of declaring — three times — that illegal immigrants “are God's children” and should “be treated in a humane fashion.”

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