WASHINGTON — White House officials announced the start of a nationwide campaign Thursday to encourage legal immigrants to become US citizens, which could add millions of voters to the electorate in time for the presidential election next year.
With about 8.8 million legal residents in the country who are eligible to become citizens, White House officials said they were trying to make it easier to complete the final steps to citizenship. The US Citizenship and Immigration Services, the federal agency in charge of naturalizations, will offer practice tests on cellphones for the civics exam that immigrants must pass, but which many find daunting, and will hold preparatory workshops in rural areas. Applicants will also be able to pay the fee — still a hefty $680 — with a credit card.
The White House is working with regional immigrant groups to organize more than 70 citizenship workshops and about 200 naturalization ceremonies in the coming week alone.
Four citizenship ambassadors have been named, including Fernando Valenzuela, the Mexican-born former pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers who recently became a US citizen after many years in the United States.
The officials said they had started the campaign this week because Thursday is Citizenship Day. But the White House is also aware of federal figures showing that about 60 percent of immigrants eligible to naturalize are Latino and about 20 percent are Asian, both groups that voted overwhelmingly for President Obama. Nearly a third of legal permanent residents eligible to naturalize are Mexican.
The campaign, which includes a blitz of television ads with a welcoming message for immigrants, gives Obama a chance to set up a contrast with Republicans vying to succeed him. In the Republican debate Wednesday night, Donald Trump, the real estate magnate who has been leading the polls among the Republican candidates, returned to his hard-line proposals that include building a wall along the length of the Southern border.
“We have a lot of really bad dudes in this country from outside,” Trump said, claiming that undocumented immigrants include many gang members and drug dealers. “First day, they’re going,” he said, referring to Baltimore and Chicago as places where deportations of criminals would begin.
Trump said he would deport all 11 million undocumented immigrants, then selectively allow some to return. Ben Carson, the pediatric surgeon in the Republican race who has seen a recent rise in the polls, also said he would consider mass deportation of all immigrants in the country illegally.
“If anybody knows how to do that, I would be willing to listen,” Carson said. “I think it’s worth discussing.”
The debate also highlighted the divide among Republicans themselves, with former governor Jeb Bush and Senator Marco Rubio, both of Florida, arguing against mass roundups and in favor of some path to legal status.
Some Republicans said they were concerned about political overtones in the campaign.
“I think it’s healthy for a democracy for people to become citizens,” said Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles. “Sadly, I think the administration went overboard. A full-fledged campaign from the White House telling people to become a citizen, I think it is politicizing the naturalization process.”
Aguilar, a Republican, was head of the citizenship office at the immigration agency for six years under the administration of President George W. Bush. He urged Congress to keep an eye on the campaign to make sure it does not go beyond civics education.
Obama’s citizenship campaign is part of a package of executive actions first announced in November. The most ambitious of them, a plan to provide protection from deportation and work permits to about 5 million undocumented immigrants, was challenged in a lawsuit by 26 states and has been blocked in the courts.
For now, White House officials have turned to the citizenship drive, which offers nothing for immigrants without legal status. To be eligible for naturalization, immigrants must have been legal permanent residents for at least three years and in most cases five years. The officials insisted the effort was nonpartisan.
Many groups collaborating with the campaign on training workshops are advocates who seek citizenship for undocumented immigrants as well and who have been alarmed by the tough tone of the Republican campaign.
“We want to build off the negative energy,” said Tara Raghuveer, policy and advocacy director for the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of immigrant groups that is holding dozens of events during the campaign. “People are hearing the hate and racist xenophobia on the national stage from the presidential candidates. They are angry and this is an opportunity for us to organize.”