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Mass. immigrant advocates launch new voter push

Russell Contreras

Minutes after Annetta Luc raised her right hand to take her oath as a United States citizen, she had a pen in hand and was using it to make sure her new country heard her voice.

With the help of an immigrant advocacy group, Luc registered to vote following a naturalization ceremony last Thursday at Boston’s Faneuil Hall, where colonists long ago agitated for their own say in government. Luc, who emigrated from the northern South American country Suriname 15 years ago, was eager to finally be able to cast a U.S. ballot.

“That was the main reason I become a U.S. citizen,” said Luc, 29. “I think it’s important to have that voice, because one person can make a difference, and I think maybe if I be able to vote, maybe I could make a difference.”

The voter registration drive launched last week by the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition is part of its larger effort to get immigrants to the polls during elections. It’s the first of four voter registration drives at naturalization ceremonies in Boston.

Marcony Almeida, director of organizing for the group, said advocates hope to register around 8,000 new voters during the campaign drive.

“If we don’t do it now, then the outcomes of the elections in 2012 and 2014 are going to be tough for immigrant voters,” Almeida said.

Advocates also plan to register immigrant voters at ceremonies scheduled for Aug. 26 and Sept. 9 at Faneuil Hall and Sept. 1 at Fenway Park.

More than 6,000 new citizens are expected to be sworn in at the Fenway Park ceremony.

Typically, there are small voter registration booths at naturalization ceremonies with information about voting. But organizers say this drive will feature more volunteers recruited statewide to get as many immigrant voters registered as possible.

Besides the naturalization ceremonies, the group plans to hold registration drives in Lowell, Malden and Marlborough — municipalities with large immigrant populations but historically low voter turnout among immigrants, Almeida said.

“I think with all the talk about immigrants violating the law and other rhetoric surrounding immigration, there’s a sense of urgency to register more immigrant voters for the upcoming (state) elections and get their voices heard,” said Eva Millona, executive director of the group.

Davut Sen, who registered to vote at Faneuil Hall last Thursday, said people who don’t vote lose their right to complain about what their representatives do.

“(Voting) is a responsibility,” said Sen, 57, originally from Turkey.

The registration drive comes after immigrant advocates in June helped defeat a state Senate-backed budget amendment aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants getting public benefits. The amendment also would have created a 24-hour phone line to report suspected illegal immigrant workers and required the state attorney general to sign an agreement to enforce federal immigration law.

A poll at the time showed that 84 percent of voters recommended that Massachusetts lawmakers require people provide proof of citizenship to receive state benefits.

Patricia Montes, executive director of Centro Presente in Somerville, said her group also is being aggressive in registering new immigrant voters in Somerville and East Boston.

Earlier this year, a state advisory panel sent Gov. Deval Patrick a report that called for various reforms, including more English classes and in-state tuition for undocumented students. Millona was co-chair of the panel.

But some immigrant activists have expressed disappointment that Patrick, who is running for a second term, has not acted on some of the recommendations.

Meanwhile, Republican candidate for governor Charles Baker and state Treasurer Timothy Cahill, who is running as an independent, have said they favor new immigration restrictions.

About 800,000 of the state’s 6.6 million residents are foreign born, according to U.S. Census estimates. It is one of the few state population groups to have grown in the last decade, census numbers show.

About 300,000 immigrants in Massachusetts are eligible to become U.S. citizens, Millona said.

Associated Press writer Jay Lindsay contributed to this report.