Nevada’s newest citizens eager to vote for the first time

By: - November 7, 2022 5:22 am

Culinary union member Angelica Landa Bonilla prepares to canvass voters from union hall. (Photo by Jeniffer Solis)

Culinary union member Angelica Landa Bonilla is one of tens of thousands of immigrants who have been naturalized in Nevada over the past several years and who will help determine the outcome of the midterms elections, according to a new report.

The University of California’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center identified nearly 43,000 “newly naturalized” immigrants across Nevada who have become citizens from 2016 through 2021. 

About one-fifth of all naturalized citizens in Nevada have naturalized since the 2016 presidential election, more than the margin of victory by which President Joe Biden won the state in 2020.

“I’m excited,” said Landa Bonilla, in her native Spanish. “I’m voting for those who can’t.”

Landa Bonilla, 43, immigrated from Mexico to the U.S. in 2002 for a better life and “the American dream.” She said she was motivated to finally become a U.S. citizen after seeing the uncertainty of her nephew’s immigration status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, meaning that while they are protected from deportation they do not qualify as U.S. citizens.

“I’m focusing more on immigration, because I see the frustration of my nephews who are Dreamers and who are scared it will be taken away,” said Landa Bonilla, who became a U.S. citizen in September.

She represents the average demographic of people who became U.S. citizens through naturalization in Nevada from 2016 to 2020, according to the report. During those years, about 59% of persons who naturalized were below the age of 45 and nearly 59% were women.

Among the newly naturalized citizens in Nevada, about half were from Latin American countries — led by 11,000 new U.S. citizens originally from Mexico. Another 16,000 new U.S. citizens in Nevada were from Asia — including 8,000 from the Philippines and nearly 2,ooo from the Republic of China.  Around 2,500 immigrants from African countries were also recently naturalized in Nevada, with about half hailing from Ethiopia. 

“To see the country in this situation — I don’t like it. But that’s why I think we should all vote. To see if we can make things better.”

– Ofelia Saragozza-Martinez

Organizers with the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada say the growth of this racially and ethnically diverse electorate could have a serious political impact on swing districts like Washoe County, an area with over 34,000 naturalized citizens.

Mexico-born Ofelia Saragozza-Martinez has lived in Reno since 1993. She said she decided to vote after a PLAN outreach event in Sparks, Nevada last month. 

After nearly three decades of struggling through the immigration process, Saragozza-Martinez became a U.S. citizen in February 2021. The process of naturalization was difficult, said Ofelia, adding that despite qualifying years prior, the process was costly and time-consuming. 

“Last year, I told myself ‘whatever happens, I have to get it done because I want to be a citizen’,” Saragozza-Martinez said in her native Spanish. 

Saragozza-Martinez described herself as a political blank slate as a first time voter. Reflecting on the recent political violence and divisiveness, Saragozza-Martinez said it upset her to see where the country is going. 

“To see the country in this situation— I don’t like it,” Saragozza-Martinez said. “But that’s why I think we should all vote. To see if we can make things better.”

Rising anti-immigrant messages she’s heard from certain politicians on the news have also made her angry and upset, said Saragozza-Martinez.

“When they see a Hispanic person commit a crime they judge all Hispanic people. Most people come to this country to work hard and contribute to the economy and make a good life for themselves,” Saragozza-Martinez said, adding that she believes politicians who make such comments are “a bit racist.”

Her top concerns as a new U.S. citizen are similar to those that most voters cite in polls —high gas prices, inflation, rising rent, and stagnant wages. Saragozza-Martinez said she will pick the party who she believes cares the most about working class issues. 

“Food prices and rent are rising, but a lot of jobs keep paying the same. Politicians need to focus on that, because a lot of employers don’t want to pay you more,” Saragozza-Martinez said. “Someone making $11, $12, $13 dollars an hour can’t survive now.”

As a home health aide, Saragozza-Martinez said she knows the difficulties of navigating inflation with a low income and worries about families with less.

“I don’t know if my vote will change anything, but I want to try and vote for a better world for everyone,” Saragozza-Martinez said. “That’s what I want from my vote.”

‘Part of the fight’

Researchers ranked Nevada 3rd in the New American Voters Impact Model, which analyzes the potential impact of naturalized citizens on the outcome of midterm elections. More than 312,000 naturalized citizens live and work in Nevada, making up nearly 10% of the state population, according to the report.

Other newly naturalized citizens like Landa Bonilla, the Culinary Union member, have already decided which party will get their first vote. 

“I voted for all the Democrats, from top to bottom,” Landa Bonilla said, in her native Spanish. “For me they are the ones who are actully going to give us the support we all need.”

Despite her recent introduction to political participation, Landa Bonilla said she wants to be “part of the fight.” She has been canvassing for the union’s political program in Las Vegas in an effort to activate more Spanish speaking voters, including other newly naturalized citizens. The Las Vegas-Henderson-Paradise metropolitan area has the highest concentration of naturalized citizens in Nevada at 285,000.

Before last year, Landa Bonilla said she didn’t see voting as something she had to do. Reflecting on election denying politicians like Republican secretary of state candidate Jim Marchant, Landa Bonilla said “I think there are various candidates to worry about but we’re fighting hard.”

“Maybe I wasn’t focused on the situation, but now that it’s affecting me— and not just me but everyone — I’d say it’s time,” Landa Bonilla said. 

Her vote is for other immigrants living in Nevada who can’t vote as much as it is for herself, said Landa Bonilla. For example, she cited friends with temporary protected status, which allows people to live and work in the U.S. without citizenship. Those friends are now in legal limbo after talks between courts and Biden administration officials to restore their status fell apart last month.

The electoral power of naturalized voters in Nevada will likely increase, according to the U.S. Immigration Policy Center report.

According to the latest data from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency, there are nearly 12,000 pending citizenship applications in USCIS’ offices in Nevada. In Las Vegas, about 80% of applications are processed within 17 months, meaning while immigrants who are eligible for citizenship may not be able to vote in this year’s election they may very well be able to vote for the next.

For immigrants who are reluctant to start the naturalization process to become U.S. citizens, Landa Bonilla said every vote counts especially when it’s made in solidarity for those who can’t vote yet.

“Now that I’ve focused more on the immigration system I realize that my vote counts,” Landa Bonilla said. “You have to do it for your family.”

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.