Univision aims at boosting Hispanic vote


Maria Elena Castillo let her voice go unheard in American politics for a decade because she was afraid of failing the U.S. citizenship test that could give her the right to vote.

What finally convinced the native of Mexico to give it a try? A massive citizenship campaign on the Spanish-language television giant better known for its rapido newscasts and torrid telenovelas.

"I didn't want to do it, but all the things I saw on Univision convinced me," said Castillo, 37, who along with her husband, Salvador Castillo, recently filled out citizenship applications at an immigration center where the station was broadcasting live. "We need to be part of this country."

Hispanics have long been seen as a powerful voting force yet to materialize, but Univision officials believe they can change that by encouraging millions of eligible immigrants to become U.S. citizens &

and then helping them with the process.

Of the 8 million legal permanent residents eligible to apply, the majority come from Latin American countries, according to federal immigration data.

With a few exceptions, immigrants must be legal residents for five years before applying for citizenship, a process that usually takes about six months and involves fees and civics and English tests.

The "Ya Es Hora" ("Now is the time") campaign was launched nationally in recent weeks after beginning with the station's local affiliate in Los Angeles in January. Now it's in a dozen cities with large Hispanic populations, including San Antonio, Dallas, Houston, Phoenix and Miami, and will soon launch in New York.

Mixed into the programming is a constant pitch to get immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship and then register to vote.

Between 5 a.m. and 7 a.m., the KMEX 34 Univision affiliate broadcasts live segments from locations in Southern California that focus on an immigrant filling out the application form with the help of a volunteer.

"How do you think this will change your life," a Univision reporter recently asked Perla Guizar, a Mexican green card holder during a live segment.

"Immigration agents will treat me better when I come into the country," said Guizar, who often travels to Tijuana to visit her mother.

Throughout the day, dozens of public service announcements give details on application requirements, costs and where to go for help. They give reasons for becoming an American and warn viewers that the cost of the citizenship application is set to rise sharply at the end of July.

Univision reporters give pop quizzes from the citizenship exam asking viewers, for example, to name the three branches of government. On Fridays, the station broadcasts live from a citizenship drive location, where volunteers charge $25 to help with lengthy applications that can take an hour to complete.

Among the several dozen people who showed up last week in Fullerton, about 35 miles south of Los Angeles, was 38-year-old Patricia Hernandez.

Hernandez, who moved here from Mexico 20 years ago, said she had been meaning to apply for years, but the Univision campaign finally pushed her to do it.

"All that I've seen on television has shown me we need to vote, and we need to be electing the people who are going to be representing us," Hernandez said.

Hispanics have traditionally voted in low numbers for several reasons. Many are under 18 or not U.S. citizens, and are thus ineligible to vote. Many come from countries such as Mexico with a history of rigged elections and corrupt leaders, making them wary of politics.

Though they've tended to lean Democratic in national elections, both parties are competing fiercely for their support in the 2008 elections. In the 2004 presidential election, President Bush got 40 percent of the Hispanic vote while Democratic rival John Kerry got 53 percent.

Beyond the airwaves, the campaign has the help of several organizations nationwide, including Spanish-language newspaper La Opinion, the Service Employees International Union, which has many immigrants in its ranks, and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, known as Naleo.

Major news organizations have traditionally tried to remain objective and not take sides in community issues. But Spanish-language audiences often expect their media outlets to be advocates for them, said Dante Chinni, a senior researcher at the Washington, D.C.-based Project for Excellence in Journalism.

"If you watch Univision broadcast, there is literally an us versus them tone," said Chinni. "It's part of the strategy of how they reach their audience."

Univision President Ray Rodriguez defended the station's activist role, saying it was ethical because the campaign was nonpartisan.

"I think we are fairly pure as journalists," said Rodriguez. "For us, there is not one negative thing about helping people who should be voting."

Rodriguez said he wasn't sure how much the company was spending on the campaign, but there were already plans for a second phase next year that will focus on getting new citizens registered to vote. The network is one of the most watched in America, often attracting more eyeballs than English-language counterparts in major cities.

Though it's impossible to pinpoint exactly what pushes eligible immigrants to apply for citizenship, applications have skyrocketed in recent months.

Between January and April, there were 404,448 applications compared to 251,428 during the same period last year, according to federal immigration data.

Immigrant and Hispanic advocacy groups believe Univision is playing a big role.

Marcelo Gaete, senior director of programs for Naleo, said marches and political debate about immigration in recent years have made Hispanic communities much more interested in politics. Since the Univision effort launched, he said, his organization has fielded about 15,000 calls from people wanting more information about the campaign they saw on television.

"Smart politicians will try to figure out what all these potential new voters mean for their campaigns," Gaete said.

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