'I can't wait to vote.' Immigrants become US citizens in time to pick a president

©Miami Herald

MIAMI — As Carlos Aybar stood inside the Miami immigration office last Friday, holding up his right hand and reciting the words of the citizenship oath through a face mask, the Dominican native felt a big wave of relief.

That day Aybar was taking part in one of the last naturalization ceremonies to be held before Florida’s voter registration deadline on Monday. That meant that Aybar, a Miami-area resident since 2010, will be able to cast a ballot in November’s presidential election.

“The first thing I’m going to do when I get out of here is register to vote,” Aybar told the Herald as he walked out of the ceremony room, naturalization certificate and miniature American flag in hand.

For the more than five dozen immigrants who became newly minted United States citizens at the Miami office, coronavirus-related disruptions at United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) meant that getting naturalized in time for the election had been far from guaranteed.

Earlier this spring, USCIS offices across the country remained shuttered for two and a half months to curb the spread of the virus, triggering a suspension of all in-person services.

Among those affected by the temporary office closures was Aybar. Back in April, his scheduled citizenship interview, the penultimate step in the citizenship process, was postponed until further notice.

“I spent about four, five months not hearing back, not knowing when it was going to happen,” said Aybar. “I had no doubt I was going to be sworn in eventually, but for the purposes of the election I was very worried that I wasn’t going to be able to register.”

Ultimately, Aybar received a September slot to complete the interview, which paved the way for his participation in the naturalization ceremony on Friday.

“I think getting the right to vote is the most important part of naturalization, and this is a really pivotal election that’s coming up,” he said. “So I am very happy and thankful that I was able to do it just in time for voter registration. The deadline is on Monday and we got naturalized Friday. It’s such a relief.”

Aybar plans to register to vote online, and then vote in the election early, and in person.

“If I had gotten naturalized just a few days later, I still would have been really happy, but I wouldn’t have been able to vote in an election for two more years,” he added. “Instead, I’ll be able to exercise my right to vote immediately.”

ELECTION IS ON THE MINDS OF NEW CITIZENS

In a departure from pre-pandemic naturalization protocol, Friday’s oath ceremonies were more intimate, socially-distanced affairs, with only around 20 people in attendance at each ceremony, all of whom had to wear masks. To keep the gatherings under 15 minutes, officers dispensed with the welcome videos typically shown in the past, and there was no congratulatory message from the president.

But just like before, the proceedings stressed the importance of civic engagement.

Voting is “one of the most important and far-reaching acts that each of you can do as a citizen, so I encourage each of you to register to vote and to vote,” said US District Court Judge Beth Bloom, who presided over the ceremonies. “In this way you’ll be participating in our democracy.”

It was a message that found a receptive audience.

“I can’t wait to vote,” said Francesca Pedde, an immigrant from Italy, after her ceremony. “I feel like as an American citizen, I will finally be able to express my opinion. I’m really looking forward to it … And October Fifth is the (voter registration) deadline, so this is amazing timing for us. It’s perfect.”

Olga Kicherman shared that excitement. The Moldovan immigrant first moved to South Florida six years ago.

“This is a big step for me … I feel such joy and pride to be an American citizen, and I’m so happy I’ll be able to register to vote,” she said. “Even though the pandemic kind of slowed everything down, I’m very excited that it didn’t stand in the way for me to become a citizen, and a voter. I did it. Barely!”

For Yoandrys Alfar, being able to vote in the upcoming election means “getting to choose for the first time what I really want, and not what was imposed on me in my country.”

The Cuban immigrant’s first ever vote in a U.S. presidential contest will go to President Donald Trump, whom he says he “trusts more” than his challenger, Democratic candidate Joe Biden.

Also in Trump’s camp will be Jackeline Reyes Santana, a Nicaraguan native who fled to Florida 36 years ago, to escape the violence that gripped her country during the Contra War. She sees supporting the president’s reelection bid as the most effective way to keep the “communism” she faced in Nicaragua at bay.

“I know many people can’t stomach the president’s personality,” she said. “But I have first-hand experience with communism and with dictatorship, and that’s really marked me.”

Biden supporters at Friday’s ceremonies were also influenced by the politics of the countries they come from. That includes Pedde, the Italian native.

“Biden’s politics agree more with my personal views, especially when it comes to immigration and healthcare. Those are very important things for me,” she said. “I’m from Italy. We have free healthcare over there and it’s a really different system. It’s something we should get closer to.”

Though Aybar also identified healthcare and immigration, as well as education and civil rights, as important issues influencing his vote, he said the main reason he will be supporting the former vice-president is the need to heal a divided country.

“We need to unify,” he said. “And clearly the president is not doing a great job of unifying the country. We need change, and that’s why I’ll be casting my vote for Biden.”

Given Florida races tend to be decided by razor-thin margins, new citizens in the Sunshine State could be more influential in the upcoming election than new citizens anywhere else.

“In any electorate like Florida’s that is closely and evenly divided, any shift in demography can be decisive,” said Casey Klofstad, a political scientist at the University of Miami whose areas of expertise include elections and immigrant political behavior.

REGISTERING TO VOTE RIGHT AWAY

Pre-pandemic, representatives of local election departments were usually present at the end of naturalization ceremonies to register newly minted citizens as soon as they took their oath. In Miami-Dade, the county’s Elections Department used to collect an average of 40 voter registration applications per oath ceremony.

Since election officials are no longer on hand — due to the public health guidelines currently in place at immigration offices — new citizens must now be more proactive to get their voter registration applications turned in.

On Friday, Neira and Jofran Duran, a pair of siblings from Venezuela, were determined to become eligible voters immediately after getting naturalized.

Once their oath ceremony wrapped up, the Durans posed for photos with their naturalization certificates, then got in their car and drove straight from the immigration office, near Miami Shores, to the Miami-Dade County Elections Department, in Doral. There, they filled out and submitted their voter registration forms, with three days to spare before the state’s registration deadline.

“We want to participate in the democracy of the place we call home,” Jofran Duran said.

———

©2020 Miami Herald