Florida is a swing state that could determine the outcome of the US election, where Hispanic voters play a key role.
Miami, United States – Waving a tiny US flag, Guyana native Lennox Bascom nearly levitated in his wheelchair as he joined others singing America the Beautiful.
Then, in spite of weakness because of a recent back surgery, the 73-year-old did rise. He rose for his oath; he rose again for the pledge of allegiance, and he rose once more to register to vote after a naturalisation ceremony at a United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) centre in South Miami.
“I’ve been here for 20 years. It’s the right thing to do,” he said, his sing-song Caribbean accent falling into rhyme as he reflected on his next steps as a US citizen. “I have to vote to have a choice. If I don’t vote, I don’t have a voice.”
If Hurricane Matthew, which battered Florida after leaving hundreds dead in Haiti, had a silver lining, it was probably scenarios such as this one. A federal judge agreed to extend Florida’s voter registration deadline by a week to October 18 in order to accommodate residents who got caught in the path of the storm.
With an even mix of Democrats and Republicans, Florida is one of the most contested states in the November 8 presidential election and polls suggest either candidate – Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump – could win its electoral votes.
Late last week, Florida resumed citizenship ceremonies it had to postpone due to bad weather, and hundreds of immigrants got a last-minute chance to take their oaths and register to vote.
“We were waiting with bated breath, waiting to see if the extension would come through, and now I’m really excited to go out of those doors and register to vote in order to have a voice,” said Angel Martinez, a Dominican immigrant who took his oath on Saturday at a USCIS facility in the Miami suburb of Hialeah.
He said he would vote for Clinton as she seems more experienced and aligns with his values more than Trump, and has a concrete political vision.
“I know Florida has been known for that swing-state vote, so what better time to really activate,” he added.
But tens of thousands of immigrants in Florida and across the US will have to wait as their applications are still pending.
In mid-September, USCIS reported that nearly 930,000 people had applied for citizenship between October 1, 2015 and June 30, 2016. That represented a 32.1-percent growth in applications.
The National Partnership for New Americans (NPNA), a coalition of advocacy groups, had been pushing for people to apply for citizenship before June, which they say should have given them more than enough time to interview, take their oaths, and register in time to vote, based on the usual turnaround of four to six months.
NPNA is concerned that authorities have not done enough to process the new applications. In Florida, for example, there are more than 60,000 pending cases.
It is common for more immigrants to apply for citizenship in election years, and while the USCIS acknowledged the challenge of meeting that demand, they do not consider the pending applications a backlog.
“Applications are processed in the order that they are filed and variances in processing times are a direct result of geography and capacity,” USCIS press officer Anita Moore said.
Changes in the application fees for citizenship could also have contributed to the increase.
Officials at USCIS offices around Miami Dade County, one of the US’ immigration epicentres, said they tried to accommodate by conducting same-day oath-taking ceremonies, as well as two or three Saturday sessions per month.
Rita Mendez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, a group that helps immigrants to get their applications in order, said that was just not enough.
“We worked so hard making two or three citizenship clinics every week, and we served more than 2,000 people in the first six months of the year because we knew if we sent in their applications, they’d be on time to vote this year,” she said.
That some of them are still in the queue “is sad because in some ways you are blocking democracy by not allowing a group of people to vote this year,” she added.
“I waited over six months and finally got a letter last week to go in for an interview on the November 7. That makes no sense,” lamented Michelle N Atkinson, a Jamaican who immigrated to Fort Lauderdale in 2010.
Naturalisation requires a number of steps. Immigrants must first turn in documentation proving their eligibility. For example, they must prove that they have been permanent legal residents for five years, or three years if they are married to a US citizen.
They must then give fingerprints and go through background checks, and, finally, they are required to pass an interview and take an oath.
USCIS says the processing time averages nearly seven months, depending on background checks and the back-and-forth process of ensuring that applicants have the right documents and have passed their tests.
Representatives at both NPNA and Florida Immigrant Coalition say their naturalisation efforts are not motivated by the prospect of who wins the elections, but by the right to participate.
Recent data suggests that if the new citizens – most of them minorities – turn out to vote, they could help to make Florida vote Democrat, as happened in the past two presidential elections.
Clinton is leading Trump at 46.0 to 42.5 percent in Florida, according to an average of polls.
Among Hispanics, Clinton is leading with 52 percent over 33 percent for Trump, and among African Americans, Clinton is leading Trump 81 to 6 percent, according to a poll by Florida Atlantic University’s Business and Economics Polling Initiative of likely voters in the state.
For decades, the Hispanic vote often helped to swing the state Republican. That was largely because the majority of immigrants in Florida hail from Cuba and older, more elitist exiles have historically voted Republican, thanks in part to the party’s isolationist stance on their leftist homeland.
Their third-generation offspring, however, tend to vote more liberal, and Cubans who arrived over the past two decades tend to favour the Obama administration’s US-Cuba normalisation.
Today, Florida’s other diaspora communities, especially those coming from Latin America and the Caribbean, are plentiful.
Puerto Ricans, who are allowed to vote after becoming US residents, have been moving to central Florida in droves, and Mendez says she has seen a major increase in citizenship applications from Haiti, Jamaica, Columbia and Mexico.
Edgar Ahmed Sanchez Cruz, a Cuban immigrant who obtained his citizenship on Friday and will vote Democrat, said he does not know any naturalised citizens in Florida in his millennial age bracket that support Trump and his tough stance on immigration.
“It’s like they said inside [during the ceremony], the immigrants came here and helped to build this country,” Sanchez said.
He said he feels he is voting not just for himself but also for the thousands of immigrants who came up short of naturalising ahead of voter registration deadlines.
“I think they have to cross their fingers and pray for all of us that have the chance to vote.”