Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican-born former pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, has a long list of accomplishments: Rookie of the Year, CY Young Award recipient and World Series champion. He reached another accomplishment last year. He became a U.S. citizen.
Now, as a presidential ambassador for citizenship and naturalization, he is encouraging eligible Latinos to become U.S. citizens and register to vote.
"I am excited to vote in my first presidential election," he said. "I think it's important for the Hispanic community to remember how important it is to vote."
Valenzuela also joined the White House Thursday to announce a series of regional convenings that will be held across the country. People from various sectors are expected to attend and discuss how they can work together to help eligible lawful permanent residents apply to become U.S. citizens.
The White House estimates there are 8.8 million lawful permanent residents living in the United States who are eligible to apply for citizenship. This includes about 5.4 million Latinos.
The convenings will highlight the efforts that have been made as part of the citizenship awareness campaign called "Stand Stronger" that the White House launched last year to encourage eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens.
The first convening will be held Friday in Los Angeles. In partnership with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, the city and its public libraries offer materials and handouts with information about the naturalization process.
USCIS director Leon Rodriguez said the partnership with the city of Los Angeles and its libraries serves as "an example of federal-municipal partnership to strengthen citizenship education and awareness efforts."
He also highlighted the work other cities are doing to help people become U.S. citizens, including his hometown of Miami Beach, which is helping lawful permanent residents who work with the city and their families become U.S. citizens and is paying for all their application fees. In San Francisco, there's an initiative called "Pathways to Citizenship" that educates people about the naturalization process and offers them resources to start the process.
Rodriguez said he believes many eligible Latinos are holding off from becoming U.S. citizens because of the application costs and because they're afraid they won't meet the English language requirements. He noted local groups offer free English language classes and said his agency is considering additional fee relief to help people with the cost of the applications.
He also emphasized that the biggest advantage to becoming a U.S. citizen is getting the right to vote.
"If individuals are dissatisfied about something where their kids go to school, or where their parents go to a senior center, or the way municipal services are provided—their vote is the most powerful way to make their voice heard," Rodriguez said.
The gatherings come at a time when local organizations are noticing an uptick in the number of Latinos who are coming to them and asking for help to become U.S. citizens.
"We've always seen a trend and an increase in people seeking to naturalize, but particularly in the last few months, our citizenship clinics are at capacity," said Adonia Simpson, managing attorney for immigration legal services at the Esperanza Center, which predominately serves Latinos in Baltimore.
Simpson said her group usually serves up to seven people per citizenship clinic, which are held every three months. In recent weeks, they've been serving up to 12 people per clinic.
Mi Familia Vota will be hosting citizenship workshops in six states on Saturday to assist eligible legal permanent residents apply for U.S. citizenship. Most of the workshops were at or near capacity by Wednesday evening. Each workshop ranges from 50 to 300 people.
Felipe Benitez, a spokesman for Mi Familia Vota, said he believes the rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates, especially Donald Trump, is fueling Latinos to want to become U.S. citizens so they can register and vote in this year's presidential election. Trump has been criticized for saying people who come to the U.S. from Mexico are criminals and rapists.
Erica Bernal-Martinez, deputy executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said she also believes the rhetoric by Trump and other GOP candidates is motivating Latinos to want to take part in this year's election.
She noted that over the last few months, the number of Latinos who are calling her group's civic engagement hotline has increased. The hotline provides information about the naturalization application process and where people can go in their local communities to get assistance.
"I think our community is becoming incredibly sophisticated," she said. "They recognize that they need to be involved in the voting process to make sure that ultimately whoever is elected … is someone who can represent their values and their priorities."