Immigrant rights activists have vowed to sign up 1 million immigrants — mostly Mexicans — for citizenship and then quickly register them to vote in time to punish Donald Trump and his fellow Republicans at the polls in November for their harsh rhetoric.
The advocates say the new voters could make a difference in the presidential race, where most of the Republican field has tacked to the right in word and policy, and in key Senate races in Illinois and Florida, where Republicans will be reaching to hang on to critical seats.
With nearly 9 million legal immigrants already eligible to become citizens, the 1 million goal is not far-fetched. The activists say they are counting on energizing another 2 million Hispanic citizens who have turned 18 since 2012 and who they believe will turn out to vote to defend fellow Dreamers, or young illegal immigrants, against Republican calls for their deportation.
“This is a huge amount of latent power,” said Joshua Hoyt, executive director of the National Partnership for New Americans, the group he and other leaders announced Thursday at the National Press Club.
The effort is funded in part by the Open Society Foundation, the project of liberal billionaire George Soros.
Hispanic leaders insist they are ready to flex political muscles commensurate with their size as the second-largest racial or ethnic group in the country behind whites.
Hispanic immigrants, however, have shown a lower propensity to naturalize in the U.S. and have lower turnout rates overall than other demographic groups, challenging the community’s leaders to get them more motivated.
They hope Mr. Trump has taken care of that for them this year with his stern stance on illegal immigration.
An estimated 8.8 million immigrants have been in the U.S. for at least five years as legal permanent residents, making them eligible to apply for citizenship, according to a study by the Center for American Progress. They are heavily Hispanic, and 30 percent of them are Mexican.
That was the population Mr. Trump appeared to target when, in announcing his campaign, he vowed to crack down on illegal immigrants. He said Mexico sent rapists and other bad elements of society to the U.S.
The advocates are also counting on citizens to rally on immigration — particularly young Hispanics whose families are touched by the debate over President Obama’s executive actions.
Mr. Obama’s 2012 deportation amnesty carved some 700,000 illegal immigrant Dreamers out of any danger of deportation and gave them work permits and access to Social Security numbers and driver’s licenses.
The president’s November 2014 plans would have granted that same status to as many as 3.7 million illegal immigrant parents — though courts have halted the action as an illegal use of executive power.
Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, an Illinois Democrat and top Hispanic leader, said when he speaks to high school students who are citizens, they are eager to defend their friends’ status. He also said many of those millions who stand to gain tentative legal status under the 2014 plan that is being blocked are parents whose own children or other relatives are eligible to vote.
“The undocumented are in the same families as the legal permanent residents and the U.S. citizens,” Mr. Gutierrez said. “Those families are going to mobilize.”
Mr. Trump on the campaign trail has insisted that Hispanics will rally to his message — though evidence backing up his claim is scant. He has polled well in Nevada, which is considered to be the first real test of Hispanic voters on the primary election calendar, but he appears to be lagging in Hispanic support nationally.
Alfonso Aguilar, a top immigration official in the Bush administration and now executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, said Mr. Trump has indeed inflamed Hispanic voters, but he said to assume that they will vote more broadly to punish Republicans does a disservice to them.
“That is the most insulting comment — not only to the Republican candidates, because it’s simply not true, but also to Latinos. It’s just crass pandering to Latinos to get their vote,” Mr. Aguilar said.
He said the other Republican presidential candidates need to publicly disagree with Mr. Trump and forcefully distance themselves to make clear that they want to compete for Hispanic voters.
“This is the situation that we have, a sad situation. Trump’s sucking the air out of the room,” he said.
Mr. Aguilar, who ran the citizenship office in the Bush administration, said getting legal permanent residents to naturalize is an important goal, but he also doubted whether the effort would work.
“In a way, they may be shooting themselves in the foot. If they don’t get to a million, it shows that their theory they’re going to use Trump to get to a million didn’t work,” he said.
One major question is whether Hispanics will be up for grabs or whether they will continue to tilt heavily Democratic. Hispanic leaders find that issue tricky: One the one hand, they want to reward Democrats for embracing legalization, but they also don’t want to be taken for granted, so they insist that their community can be swayed — though only by candidates who also want legalization.
Mr. Gutierrez said the registration effort won’t try to single out Democrats and that he would sign up anyone who wants to naturalize and register to vote.
But he said there is little doubt in his mind which way the new Hispanic voters will trend, and he is skeptical that even the two Cuban-American Republicans running for president will have an effect.
“They know who’s on their side, right?” he said. “Having a last surname that is Latino does not make you an advocate for the interests and a defender for the future and a more prosperous future for our community.”