The other day, I had the pleasure of leading a zoom meeting where I was mentoring a group of new American immigrants.
All of them have recently become citizens. Some have lived here for 5 years, some for more than that. Regardless, it’s a huge milestone to celebrate! All hard work deserves celebration, so we, were celebrating.
During the meeting, they shared with me their stories of coming to the U.S. and the challenges they faced. As an immigrant myself, I know the courage and bravery it takes to be where they are right now, and I never get tired of hearing stories like that. Their resilience and the hard work they had endured to get where they are is nothing but heroic. No wonder America thrives on immigrants who work so hard to have the American life.
One of the topics we were talking about was getting involved in their communities. Then, the upcoming election came up. Out of that discussion, we found the main reasons why some immigrants who become American citizens don't vote or are hesitant to vote. We found barriers that new Americans face and tried to tackle that in the group, and I found a few tips that I shared with them. And I decided to write a blog about it in case others might find it useful.
It goes without saying that one of the rights you have as a new American citizen is the right to vote. It doesn’t really matter who you vote for, it’s important you do because your voice matters. If I can address your barriers in this blog and you are able to find tips to remove them, and you go out there and vote, then my job is done. So, let’s look at the barriers one by one and see if we can find a solution together.
1. Complicated voter registration
This a common barrier for many. When I first registered to vote, I was a little bit scared because it was my first time to do something like that. I never in my life voted before then and didn’t know what to expect. I get it, you might not have a prior experience in voting like me, or where you are from might not even have elections and that is not something you are used to, or you might have voted before in your country of origin and the U.S. voting system might be different.
I like simple, though, so let’s try and simplify it.
In the U.S. you have to register to vote. You might be dreading it, however I know you already have the experience in applying for things in your life. How do I know? I know you had to go through the process of naturalization to become an American citizen. I remember what hard work that was. But don’t sell yourself short. Having gone through that you already have an experience under your belt.
It doesn’t matter if you asked for help to fill out the naturalization application form or if you took time to do it yourself. Registering for voting isn’t much different; it’s actually much, much simpler.
I am in California, so I know it offers voter registration online, by mail, and in person, so you have a lot of options here. Choose something that is less complicated and tackle it.
If you know how to surf the internet, just go to https://vote.gov/ and select your state and take it from there. It takes only few minutes to complete.
If you are not comfortable with the internet yet, you could request a paper Voter Registration Form from your county election office by going in person or calling them. The voter registration application form is also available at the Department of Motor Vehicles field office, many post offices, and government offices.
So, pick one you feel comfortable going to and go get it done.
However, there is a deadline you need to watch, usually 15 days prior to election day, so make sure when you register that your registration arrives before the deadline.
However, if for some reason you missed this deadline, don’t fret. You may be able to register and vote on the spot (at your polling place) on election day, or 14 days prior to voting day under conditional voting if you meet all the requirements. But then again, each state is different, so check with your state to see if they allow same day voter registration.
2. Feeling overwhelmed
This barrier is a big one for most new American immigrants, including myself.
I have to tell you, when I first came to U.S. one of my cultural shocks was how much paper we get in the mail, how we get a bunch of paperwork to read, understand, and sign for everything. As a new American, I was guilty of signing paperwork without really understanding the whole concept, just to be done with it.
I get it, once you register, there is so much work to do. It’s not just voting for a president, its everything else that comes with it. We also have to vote for all the candidates for state and local government offices. And not to mention all those ballot proposition and measures that we need to vote on, not to mention we meight not even understand what propositions and measures mean so you might have to spend time researching that.
Oh boy, it can quickly get really overwhelming.
Yes, In order to pick a candidate of your choice, you have to know all about the candidates and compare what resonates with your values. The same goes with the propositions and measures. And this takes time and energy, and you might not even be sure what you are doign is correct since you are new; so before you know it, you are feeling overwhelmed. Believe me, I been there. Infact, many Americans who were born here deal with that as well. Its a learning process for all of us, every time we do it, we get better at it. You don't have to know everything. Just excerise your right to vote with what you know now. where you are is good enough.
So now we established that, let me share what has been working for me.
My life is really busy. I have kids and work, so I always request a ballot to be sent to me. That helps me stress less because I can fill out the form when I have the time.
Then, I take half a day; on a day I don’t have work. I make sure I Set up care for my kids and then, I close my door and focus on filling out the ballot. After I am done, I just have to schedule a time when I can go drop it off at the ballot box near me.
This year, my husband is also voting, so, we are doing it together, discussing the ballot propositions, the candidates and filling out our ballots on the weekends after we put our kids to nap. Its actually fun doing it together.
My husband being originally from Italy and newly American; brings a different perspective to our discussion and debate.
So, you too, could find a way to take half an hour or half day depending on how much time you need and be done with it.
Or, instead, you could do it with your husband/wife or with friends. And these days, you don’t even have to meet your friends in person, you could do it virtually. That way it’s not too overwhelming, and you can discuss with your friends and come up with your own decision to put your voice on the ballot. Just avoid arguments and focus on productive conversations so it doesn’t contribute to your feeling overwhelmed.
When done, you could drop off your ballot or you can may mail it. Just make sure to watch the deadline.
If you want to go in person on election day and vote, that is also great. I am sure a lot of polling places are taking precautions for COVID 19, so be sure to take your mask and be safe while voting.
3. Language limitations
You may have limited language, or you may be feeling overwhelmed because of terms and words you don't understand. All states have applications online and paper in other languages. I know California currently has the applications in 9 languages. They also have the ballots in many languages. So, check with your state if they have access for your language. If they do, request that and vote.
If you cannot get the application or ballot in your language, ask for your community center to provide you with an interpreter/ translator to help you out. There are many volunteers in most community centers. If all else fails, they usually have different workers who are bilinguals at polling places. Ask if they have someone who speaks your language. I am sure they will be happy to assist you.
“What difference does it make if I vote or not? After all, Liberty and Justice for all only exist in paper and how about those many citizens who had been deprived of these in this country?” Said Fatimata from Senegal when we were talking about the Election a few months ago, while getting my hair done. “How about the Muslim? peoples’ right? Why should I waste my time on voting when I know nothing is going to change?”
If you find your self in this category, I hear your frustration, and yeah, we all felt that way at some point in our lives. America is a great country, but no one said it is a perfect one with no problems. When we became citizens, we inherited American’s problems along with the benefits. And the problems and issues that America face don’t solve themselves.
Luckly, We as Ameridcan individuals have the right to vote. So, by voting for politicians that you think will fight for everyone’s right and what is important to you, you are now part of the solution.
By not voting and not voicing your opinion the problem persists. If that persists, we are not creating a place for our children to live in and being indifferent is part of the problem. So, choose to be part of the solution.
5. “But this really is not my country, I just needed the citizenship.”
A very few people have said this to me in the past, and I actually had to force myself to remain calm in talking to people who feel this way. If you find yourself in this category, I see where you are coming from. However, with all due respect, I would like you to consider this, why did you become a U.S. citizen? just to be a citizen on paper? If so, concider this is the most selfish thing one can do as this country has welcomed us with both hands and gave us the right to live as people who are born here. So use the opportunity.
Remind yourself why you came to this country to begin with. Some of us are here because we were fleeing a war, some of us moved looking for economic opportunity, some of us fled because we couldn’t worship the way we wanted or we couldn’t vote for a a political party we believed in and it might be that It was dangerous for our lives to stay and our family's life was in danger .
It doesn’t really matter why we came really. Just think of that first and again ask yourself, have you found what you fled or left your country origin for in the U.S? If the answer is yes, then you have the responsibility and the opportunity to get involved in the community to make it the community that you and your family want to live in.
If you are American only on paper, then you are part of the problem. Its really not too late to be part of the solution.
6. Fear of abandoning who we are
A woman said to me once, “If I am too involved in everything in America, including voting, I am afraid I might forget all my tradition and where I came from.”
I completly get this, When got my citzenship i did concider this though. I simply didn't want to lose who I was by immersing my self too much in American affairs.
It turns out, this is simply not true. As an Eritrean American, I love my traditional dance,
I love speaking my language and teaching my kids the language i came from, I love my traditional food, our coffee ceremony and traditional attire. And I love sharing those with my fellow Americans when the opportunity presents itself.
I am proud of where I came from, and that is never going to change. And I also honor other people's origin. In fact, when I meet people who are originally from another country, our conversation becomes interesting through sharing about the culture we all came from.
I love experiencing different cuisines from different cultures, that is what makes America great. The diversity. Just by loving America like my country and participating in making the community and the country I live in, it doesn’t make me abandon my original identity. Its possible to honor where you came from and be a proud American.
In fact, I urge you in not abandon the traditions of your native countries because that is part of who you are and the is the gift you bring to this great nation.
I hope you found those “tips” helpful. There were other barriers we found in the group that we face as new Americans, but these are just a few. Please share with us if you identified other barriers and the solutions you found to overcome them so others can learn them.