Metro

In N.H., immigrants may tip the scales in presidential race

Adison Soko of Derry, N.H., formerly of Zimbabwe, raised his hand for an oath during a citizenship ceremony at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.
Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe
Adison Soko of Derry, N.H., formerly of Zimbabwe, raised his hand for an oath during a citizenship ceremony at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

MANCHESTER, N.H. — On a patch of grass in their housing complex, Seattle Seahawks fans from Africa play American football. Nearby, an Iraqi refugee sweeps the sidewalk outside his apartment and waters it down with a garden hose.

And a woman who walked seven days from South Sudan to Ethiopia to flee a bloody war yawns in her kitchen after a long day at work as a cleaner.

Meet the immigrants whose families are a potential wild card in the coming presidential election in a state where the contest is suddenly close. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump both campaigned here last week, hoping to scoop up the state’s four electoral votes.

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And some say New Hampshire’s small but growing immigrant population could tip the scales.

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“I’m going to vote,” said Ayen Dak, the 39-year-old cleaner from South Sudan, snuggled in a bathrobe and sitting at her kitchen table. She leaned forward: “I vote always.”

This election season, New Hampshire has posted one of the highest increases in citizenship applications in the United States. From January to March, citizenship applications were up 65 percent over the previous quarter, and applications continued to pour in. Because New Hampshire allows residents to register to vote on Election Day, their effect will be anyone’s guess.

“I believe that things are going to be close, very close,” said Alejandro Urrutia, a longtime Hudson resident and immigrant from Mexico running for state representative in New Hampshire. “If anyone can incline the balance toward the Democrats, it will be the immigrants.”

Immigrants are still a small share of the population in this state of 1.3 million; more than 79,000 statewide, or 6 percent. Immigrants say they are drawn to the Granite State for work, affordable housing, and a slower way of life, and they hail from a wide array of nations, including Bhutan, Canada, India, the Dominican Republic, and the Philippines.

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Census figures show that more than 57 percent of voting-age immigrants in New Hampshire are naturalized citizens, a higher percentage than in both Massachusetts and the United States.

New Hampshire nonprofits say they have been promoting citizenship in churches, mosques, English classes, and at festivals. Research, they say, shows that the benefits of citizenship go beyond casting a vote. On average people get better jobs, access to federal financial aid, and feel more secure in their communities.

“Basically the word we share with all of our people is if you’re able to become a citizen, take advantage of that amazing opportunity,” said Cathy Chesley, director of New Hampshire Catholic Charities’ Office of Immigration and Refugee Services, which provides services to immigrants and refugees. “I think now more than ever, given this election, people understand why voting is really important.”

Hong Mei Zhai (center) of Derry, N.H., formerly of China, said the Pledge of Allegiance at a recent citizenship ceremony.
Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe
Hong Mei Zhai (center) of Derry, N.H., formerly of China, said the Pledge of Allegiance at a recent citizenship ceremony.

Federal records show more than 1,000 people in New Hampshire applied for citizenship from January to June and more than 60 percent have been approved. Hundreds more applications are pending.

Some worry that processing delays at US Citizenship and Immigration Services will prevent many new citizens from voting in November, a concern also raised before President Obama’s historic election in 2008. But US officials say they are currently meeting their goals to process citizenship applications within five to seven months — which is significantly shorter than the wait times in 2008.

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Though many attribute the surge in citizenship applications to Trump, others say the reasons are more personal.

‘I think now more than ever, given this election, people understand why voting is really important.’

Cathy Chesley, Catholic Charities 

At a citizenship ceremony in Manchester this month, immigrants from India, China, and Zimbabwe said they wanted to find a better job — or just get their teenagers to stop making fun of them.

Ming Meng, a 38-year-old Dartmouth professor, and Juan Zhang, 37, a computer scientist, a married couple from China, said their children constantly tease them for being unable to vote.

“We’d like to participate,” said Meng, smiling after the ceremony.

Getting involved in civic life can seem daunting in a state that is 91 percent white, but Urrutia, the political candidate from Mexico, said US citizenship opens a door to those possibilities.

He is running for state representative for the third time from the town of Hudson, which gained notoriety in recent years for helping enforce federal immigration laws. But two years ago that program quietly ended. Urrutia said the police are willing to listen to his concerns and a police captain said they are planning a training session this week on preventing racial profiling.

Urrutia, a Democrat, said he is campaigning on issues that concern all his neighbors, including health care, schools, and the minimum wage, which is still $7.25 an hour in New Hampshire, lower than in Massachusetts.

“There are more progressive people in New Hampshire, in my district, and they are not well represented,” said Urrutia, adding later, “Even if I do not win, I know I am . . . helping to produce change.”

Soko held an American flag before the ceremony.
Cheryl Senter for The Boston Globe
Soko held an American flag before the ceremony.

Maria Sacchetti can be reached at maria.sacchetti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.