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Univision Fuels Citizenship Drive

Spanish-Language Network Backs Campaign That Could Add Millions of Latino Voters

May 11, 2007
By MIRIAM JORDAN, Wall Street Journal

Backed by the largest Spanish-language broadcast network in the U.S., a massive campaign by Latino media and grass-roots groups to spur millions of eligible Hispanic residents to become U.S. citizens is showing results that could influence the agenda and outcome of the 2008 election.

More than eight million green-card holders -- that is, legal permanent residents -- are eligible to become U.S. citizens, and the majority are immigrants of Latin American origin, according to U.S. government data.

Now, Univision Communications Inc. is using its considerable clout with the Spanish-speaking community in the U.S. to turn this latent voting bloc into an active and potentially potent force.

The citizenship drive, which is about to go national, could help turn Latinos into a key electoral constituency in several states. A larger bloc of new Latino voters would likely influence the immigration debate that has been dividing the country.

In part because of this, Hispanic voters in recent elections have tended to cast ballots mostly for Democrats. For instance, in the 2006 congressional contest, Republican candidates who take a harder line on illegal immigrants than their rivals garnered only 31% of the Latino vote.

Apart from immigration, Hispanics are animated by education and employment policies, so their greater participation could shape candidates' stances on those issues as well.

Given past voting patterns, "a surge in naturalizations will benefit Democrats at least twice as much as Republicans," said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a nonpartisan research organization.

It is unusual for a mainstream media company to mount a public-service effort that would seem to benefit such a specific interest group. But Univision is so closely allied with its Spanish-speaking audience that such a campaign is considered core to its mission.

"We feel that empowering our audience is good for Hispanics and the country," said Univision President Ray Rodriguez. "It's part of our relationship with viewers."

"This is a totally nonpartisan effort," he adds.

The citizenship drive began in January, when Univision's largest station -- Los Angeles's KMEX 34 -- began bombarding Southern California airwaves with a campaign designed to steer eligible viewers to become U.S. citizens.

The impact was immediate: In Los Angeles and surrounding counties, the number of citizenship applications filed to the U.S. government more than doubled for the three months ended March 2007 compared with the same period last year.

It typically takes six or seven months for green-card holders to complete the citizenship process.

Now, the campaign is spreading quickly to big cities including Miami, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Phoenix. After the yearlong campaign is complete, a second phase is slated for 2008 that will focus on getting the new citizens to register to vote.

"I have never seen anything like it in my career. It's big," said Jane Arellano, a 39-year veteran of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services who is district director in L.A.

Both major U.S. political parties are acutely aware of the impact that a stinging immigration debate in Congress, set to begin soon, could have on new Latino voters.

Historically, Latinos have had a lower voter-participation rate than others -- in 2004, 47% of those eligible voted, compared with 67% of whites and 60% of blacks, according to Pew Hispanic Center tabulations.

However, Latino immigrants who become citizens report higher rates of political participation than native-born Latinos, according to Pew.

It is difficult to underestimate how much firepower Univision is putting behind the effort.

With a catchy slogan, "Ya Es Hora" ("It's About Time"), the campaign in L.A. has been integrated into every local newscast, in addition to being flogged in public-service announcements throughout the day.

The citizenship drive is the brainchild of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, a nonpartisan outreach group known as Naleo.

Last year, Naleo officials gathered representatives from Univision, Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, Spanish-language radio, unions and dozens of community groups to hatch a plan for drawing more Hispanics into the U.S. political process.

The result is the largest campaign ever to convert eligible Hispanics into citizens and, ultimately, voters. "This is about increasing the participation of Latino immigrants in U.S. civic life," says Marcelo Gaete, a senior director of Naleo. "They can change the political landscape."

The initiative illustrates the influence Spanish-language media have over their audience.

"Our job is not to just deliver the news; we are dealing with immigrants who need to be taught about their rights," said Pedro Rojas, executive editor of La Opinion, a large Spanish-language daily in Los Angeles.

Used to fielding calls from viewers about immigration raids, police violence and community concerns, Mr. Rojas sees the paper's attempt to nudge viewers to become citizens -- and then to vote -- as one more manifestation of its continuing commitment to empower the Hispanic community.

Officials at Univision, which claims it averages four million viewers on a given day, say their citizenship campaign has become a topic at water coolers and bus stops. Mr. Rodriguez, the president, said the campaign would go national at the network level in the next few weeks.

The campaign's timing is crucial, he said, because the government is expected to raise the cost of applying for citizenship, and to introduce a new civics test that may be more difficult, later this year.

Despite commanding 80% of all Spanish-language TV viewers in the U.S., Univision doesn't normally attract political-advertising dollars commensurate to the size of its audience because it is perceived by advertisers as having the eyeballs of undocumented immigrants or non-English speakers alienated from the U.S. political process.

But positive results from the "Ya Es Hora" campaign, which is slated to last all year, could help the network attract unprecedented political-campaign money. "One of the side benefits of this initiative is the hope that more citizens watching the network could translate into more political-ad dollars," said a person who discussed the campaign with a senior Univision executive.

Rodriguez doesn't deny his network could pocket more campaign dollars down the road, but insisted this isn't what motivated the campaign.

Univision, which has more viewers than do English-language networks in many U.S. markets, is still under the radar in some corners.

But it wields enormous sway with its audience. Polls have found it commands as much trust as the Roman Catholic Church among Hispanics in the U.S.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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