Newly Naturalized Citizens May Play Key Role in Pennsylvania Elections

With days to go until the midterm elections, the immigration crisis in the U.S. and the polarization between Democrats and Republicans divides foreign-born voters and Americans with immigrant parents.

That divide can be clearly seen in the city of Scranton. Located only a few hours from big cities like New York and Philadelphia, Scranton, PA, birthplace of President Joe Biden, has seen a shift in its area’s population diversity, which rose from 19.3% in 2010 to 33.1% in 2020, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Once a coal mining and textile town, the electric city now attracts workers for warehouses, rooftopping, manufacturing and construction, especially undocumented immigrants. 

Even if the majority of the foreign-born population cannot vote as an American citizen, the change in Scranton’s population diversity reflects a shift about who Pennsylvania politicians are representing, while also firing up the race for state and federal office. 

A resident of Scranton for almost 30 years, Jenny Gonzales has worked closely with immigrants at the Community Justice Project law firm for the last ten years. She says that although the immigrant community in Scranton is gaining more voice in politics, the current economic situation has added to the slow advance in immigration policies, and is making immigrants who have been living in the country for years question newly arrived immigrants. 

“What I am seeing is a shift. Even children of undocumented immigrants are becoming more conservative: you have the older generation who are here and have been for a long time; they are getting upset with the new waves of immigrants,” she said. 

With one of the most competitive congressional races, Pennsylvania is choosing between the Democrat John Fetterman and the Republican Mehmet Oz for a seat in the Senate. If elected, Fetterman will become the first American senator married to a formerly undocumented immigrant. On the other hand, Mehmet Oz promises to clamp down on immigrants full stop if elected.  

On the state level, the Republican Jim Bognet is running against the Democratic candidate Matt Cartwright, who broke with his party on immigration matters, supporting the construction of a wall along the southern border. 

Gonzales says that one of the reasons for a  cold reception of new immigrants from older immigrants is the demand and necessity for asylum. 

“We see many people questioning: ‘who do these people think they are coming here and asking for asylum and getting all the help? I have been here for 30 years and haven’t complained; I worked, paid taxes, and am still undocumented, but I’m grateful’. But the young generation demands things, and you are crashing within the immigrant population.”

The shift in attitude observed by Gonzales comes amid a record surge in immigration at the southern US border. With more than 2.3 million migrant encounters in the Fiscal Year 2022. Migration, along with inflation and abortion rights, are top concerns of voters going into the election, polls have shown. 

Gonzales described this movement as “frustrating.” She is now the director of a program at Marywood University that offers Latino/a/x youth the opportunity to explore their long-term academic and professional goals. She moved to Scranton from Queens, in New York, when she was a kid because her parents, undocumented Mexicans, were looking for better job opportunities at the time. 

“It is surprising that I’m hearing this from the undocumented population,” she added.

A recent poll by The Washington Post-Ipsos also shows that the Hispanic and Latino community in general still favors Democrats but with a smaller margin (27 points) than four years ago (40 points).

In Pennsylvania, a swing state for victories in recent elections, the 85,083 newly naturalized citizens between 2016 and 2020 exceeds the election margin of 80,555 votes in 2020, according to a report from NPNA (National Partnership for New Americans).

Also working with immigrants in Scranton, the former assistant at the Community Health And Family Center at the University of Scranton, Maria Vital, a Brazilian, says that the feeling among part of the community is that the way the borders are currently working is “unbearable.” She believes that reform in how borders are being opened is necessary to improve immigrants’ lives in the United States. 

“Everyone that comes here is looking for a better life, and I’m in favor of that. But without a paper, an immigrant has to accept whatever job and wage it offers him, and then you have a salary decrease and a worsened economy, and so it goes for immigrants to become villains.”

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