CHICAGO — At age 55, immigrant Sanjuana Romero of McKinley Park will be casting her first ballot Tuesday in the United States.
A mother of four who has lived in the United States since 1989, Romero is one of thousands of new immigrant voters in Illinois who took the steps to become a U.S. citizen during this divisive election season, making them eligible to vote for the first time.
Ahead of the election, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, The Resurrection Project in Pilsen and dozens of other groups launched campaigns in Illinois with the goal of creating thousands of new immigrant voters. To date, the New American Democracy Project has registered 25,292 immigrant voters in Illinois and targeted another 50,000 immigrant voters to cast votes at the polls Tuesday.
Applications for citizenship in the Chicago region increased 14.7 percent from April through June 2015 compared to April through June this year. Nationwide, naturalization applications rose 32.1 percent between those periods, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Early voting data indicates that Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will benefit from the surge in Hispanic turnout, according to The New York Times.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Tammy Duckworth said Tuesday that the strong turnout at the polls by Hispanic voters shows the perils of ignoring the growing segment of the country's population.
"The Latino vote has been huge and this is a message that we can't discount" any ethnic group, said Duckworth, who stopped for lunch at Manny's Delicatessen in the South Loop.
Many are voting against Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump, who said in June 2015 when he announced his candidacy that Mexico was not "sending their best" and soon announced policy proposals that would include deportation for undocumented Hispanic immigrants.
"They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people," Trump said.
Romero, who emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, with her husband to seek better opportunities for her family, said that she will be casting her vote Tuesday por mi raza — "for my people."
"I want better jobs for them, better opportunities to be able to go to school," Romero said Monday night in Pilsen. "I feel there is a lot of discrimination right now, and I want equality."
Romero said she was primarily motivated to apply for U.S. citizenship so she could elect her own representatives. But Trump's comments, which came while she was studying to apply for citizenship, offended her.
"Of course it offended me because I am Mexican. I bleed Mexican, my brothers and sisters are Mexican. I felt like someone was stepping on my people," Romero said.
Erendira Rendon, a community organizer with Resurrection Project, said that some Mexican immigrants she works with have felt "attacked" during the election season. Applying for citizenship and registering to vote gives them power, she said.
"It's an incentive to say, 'You don't just have to sit there and take this attack. You can act,'" Rendon said.
Illinois is the home of 675,000 Latino, Asian and Middle Eastern immigrant voters who are registered but who have not voted more than once in the last three general elections, according to the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights.
Immigrants are the fastest growing electoral group in the United States, with 800,000 Latinos turning 18 every year and 9.9 million green card holders eligible for U.S. citizenship across the country.
In Illinois, 370,000 green card holders are eligible for U.S. citizenship, leaders said at a January news conference in Pilsen.
Regardless of the election outcome, U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez and Jan Schakowsky, both Illinois Democrats, and dozens of Latino leaders will hold a news conference Wednesday pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
"Our new elected officials can choose to encourage citizenship and respect immigrant contributions, or risk alienating the growing and increasingly important immigrant vote," the group wrote in a news release.
A woman submits her ballot at Rudy Lozano Library in Pilsen Tuesday. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]
As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, before the evening voting rush, 296 ballots had been cast in the 25th Ward's 2nd precinct at Rudy Lozano Library in Pilsen. Last year, about 375 total ballots were cast, said Jesus Fraga, an election commission volunteer.
Chicago's 25th Ward is the home of 54,500 residents, 56 percent of whom are Hispanic and 14 percent of whom are Asian. The ward includes the neighborhood of Pilsen, a historical point of entry for Mexican immigrants, and Chinatown.
By 9 a.m., nearly 80 people had cast ballots at the Humboldt Park Library in the 26th Ward, which election volunteers said was "very high." About 66 percent of 26th Ward residents are Hispanic.
Smashing early voting records and leading to long lines Monday night, about 325,112 ballots were cast in Chicago during the early voting period, according to James Allen, communications director for the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners. The old record was 260,000.
More than 62,000 ballots and additional grace-period registration ballots also were cast. A total of about 400,000 ballots were cast before polls officially opened on Election Day, he said.
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