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In Arizona and elsewhere, new citizens could sway the 2024 election

When Tucson resident Ricardo Morales set out to get his US citizenship last year, he had one big reason in mind.

"The elections, because I knew that the elections were coming, so that was one of my main goals," he said.

Now for the first time, he’ll be voting in both the U.S. presidential election in November, and Mexico’s in June. 

“We are super citizens, you know, because we are going to be able to make an impact in Mexico and make an impact here in the U.S.,” he said.

Morales is a community organizer with the advocacy group Chicanos Por La Causa. Today, that message is the same one he gives to others looking into the process.

"Just do it," he says. "I mean, if you can apply for citizenship, do it. Register to vote and participate. I mean this is part of the civic education that all the immigrants should have."

He says people want to get their citizenship for a lot of different reasons, but more and more, he’s hearing from immigrants like him, who want do it this year, so they can vote. 

“People are telling me, ‘oh, I want to register, I want to make myself heard,’” he said. 

I met Morales on a quiet morning last month in Nogales, Arizona, where a few dozen people filed into a community center to hear from immigration experts and community groups like his about the process of becoming a U.S. citizen. 

More than 31 million immigrants are already naturalized U.S. citizens or likely eligible to do so this year, according to data analyzed by the advocacy group American Immigration Council. That number includes more than 24 million who are already naturalized, and 7.4 million who likely meet the requirements to do so. Report co-author Steve Hubbard says more than 164,000 are likely eligible in Arizona alone — a figure that far outpaces the number of votes President Biden won the state with in 2020.

“The margin of victory in Arizona was 10,000, almost 11,000. So you can see that the number of immigrants that are likely eligible to naturalize is much higher than the margin of victory in the last presidential election,” he said. 

The report uses data from the American Communities Survey and identifies eight states where the number of potential new voters is larger than Biden's margin of victory in 2020. Hubbard says becoming a citizen is a rigorous, time-consuming and expensive process, meaning those that complete it are highly likely to vote.

“So it is a population that I think politicians, wherever you are, should be thinking about,” he said. “If it’s a close election, there’s a very big possibility that if you ignore the naturalized citizen population, you could lose.”

That’s the case for Nogales resident Isidra Aguirre. She attended the resource fair last month to learn more about things like cost and language requirements of naturalization. She's from from the Mexican state of Durango and has been in Arizona for more than a decade. She said becoming a citizen would give her the chance to finally be heard. 

“Because right now, we can’t decide,  we can’t vote,” she said. “I’d like to become a citizen for various reasons, above all to vote and decide who governs us.”

The drive to register new voters was also a central theme at a recent naturalization ceremony held at a Tucson elementary school in honor of Women’s History Month. 

Twenty-three applicants from 13 different countries were awarded U.S. citizenship that day, welcomed by folklorico dance performances and speeches from local leaders, including Tucson Mayor Regina Romero. 

“Our democracy may be imperfect, but it is resilient, and so it becomes our job, your job, to work toward perfecting our democracy, and that is the essence of what being a citizen is all about,” Romero said. 

Just outside the ceremony, representatives from the Pima County Recorder’s Office were waiting to help register new citizens as voters, like Alavina Doherty. She’s originally from Tonga Island and has been in Tucson for more than 30 years with a green card. She says she decided to get her citizenship to be able to participate more fully in her community, including elections.

“Not just for me and my family, but for my whole community,” she said. “I feel like a new person.”

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Alisa Reznick is a senior field correspondent covering stories across southern Arizona and the borderlands for the Tucson bureau of KJZZ's Fronteras Desk.