The desire to vote, especially in a hotly contested presidential election, is propelling the number of new U.S. citizens in Minnesota to record levels.
About 1,500 people were sworn in as new Americans Thursday at the Minneapolis Convention Center -- the largest naturalization ceremony in Minnesota history.
"This is astounding for me," said U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Robert J. Kressel, who presided over the ceremony.
A Sept. 25 swearing-in ceremony is expected to draw an equally large crowd.
The connection between the large batch of new citizens and voter registration was evident Thursday, as representatives of the League of Women Voters of Minnesota collected stacks of completed voter registration cards.
Typically, the number of new citizens goes up in presidential election years, say officials from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
And in any year, there's usually an extra push to process naturalization applications as Sept. 30, the end of the fiscal year, nears.
In Minnesota and the Dakotas, citizenship applications have steadily increased over the past few years, from 8,873 in fiscal year 2009 to 11,861 in fiscal year 2010 to 13,243 in fiscal year 2011, federal data shows.
Reasons for pursuing American citizenship were as varied and personal as the people taking the Oath of Allegiance on Thursday. But the chance to participate in the upcoming elections was cited often.
"I'm excited. I'm so happy," Maribel Viscarra, who came to the United States from El Salvador 11 years ago, said after her family presented her with a bouquet of red roses at the ceremony.
"I want to vote because when we vote we have the opportunity to choose somebody to make some decisions for us," she said.
Asked whom she will vote for in this, her first presidential election, Viscarra did not hesitate. "I will vote for Barack Obama. I love him!"
She added that she is supporting him because "he has done a lot for Latin people."
Her son, Carlos Sosa, is a new American too.
He became a citizen last week and said he plans to vote in November. "I'm pretty sure I'm going for Obama. I think his economic plan is good and also Romney doesn't have much of an immigration plan."
But he said his main reason for applying for citizenship this year was to advance in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He said he wants to become an officer, and for that, citizenship is required.
Josef Howard, a pastor of a church in Robbinsdale, also said the elections were a big reason he decided to pursue citizenship this year. "It really motivated me," he said.
A native of Liberia, he came to the U.S. a dozen years ago. He said he is most concerned about immigration and marriage issues.
Howard declined to say whom he will support for president, but said he is disappointed with the current president's lack of progress on immigration reform. On the issue of marriage, he said, "I happen to believe marriage is between one man and one woman. I'm very concerned with the direction the country is heading.... I want to be a part of that process in deciding which direction this country goes. My kids will grow up here."
As the election nears, some community activists have been encouraging immigrants who are eligible for citizenship to apply so they can cast their vote.
"We're working on the ground. We're trying to motivate the Latino community -- those who can be citizens to become citizens," said Marlene Rojas, one such activist who is working with a group called Tamales Y Bicicletas.
The next Minnesota naturalization ceremony on Sept. 25 happens to fall on the same day as National Voter Registration Day, noted Judy Stuthman, immigration chair for the League of Women Voters of Minnesota.
Allie Shah • 612-673-4488