30 September 2020
They came to the United States fleeing war and persecution in countries like Myanmar, Eritrea and Iraq. They were chosen by the Obama administration to resettle in the U.S. under longstanding humanitarian traditions.
Now, tens of thousands of these refugees have become American citizens. They can now vote for the first time in what could be one of the most important presidential elections of their lifetimes.
New voters from Arizona to Florida know they will help choose the country's next leader. That leader will decide the future of the very resettlement program they used to enter the country. President Donald Trump has all but stopped that program and may shut it down starting October 1.
"Most refugees come to this country escaping political systems where the government is not their friend," said Hans Van de Weerd. He is the vice president of resettlement for the International Rescue Committee.
Republican and Democratic administrations have resettled an average of 95,000 refugees each year over the last 40 years. The Trump government, however, dropped the number down to 18,000. Only about 9,000 refugees have come in this year during the coronavirus health crisis.
The lower numbers are likely to continue if Trump is reelected. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden has promised to increase the yearly number to 125,000 if he wins the election.
There are no voter registration numbers for refugees. But the National Partnership for New Americans predicted that about 860,000 immigrants would gain that right this year by becoming citizens.
Through its citizenship classes, the International Rescue Committee has helped around 6,000 refugees and other newcomers become Americans each of the last few years.
People seeking U.S. citizenship are facing some new barriers, such as a large increase in the amount the government charges to complete the process. The amount rose from $640 to $1,170.
Department of Homeland Security numbers in recent years have shown that refugees and asylum-seekers have a new-citizenship rate of over 70 percent during their first 10 years in the country. Refugees can apply for citizenship after five years as permanent residents.
Once they become citizens, they can register and vote.
"So many want to vote this time," said Basma Alawee, a refugee and an organizer for the Florida Immigrant Coalition. She has been leading online classes to help other refugees prepare for Election Day.
Alawee was born in Iraq and is now a U.S. citizen living in Jacksonville, Florida. She said she also plans to vote in her first presidential election on November 3.
Another Iraqi, Bilal Alobaidi, recalls elections in Iraq under Saddam Hussein when only the leader's name was on the ballot. The choices were "yes" or "no."
"And if you said ‘no,' something bad could happen to you," said Alobaidi. He arrived in the U.S. in December 2013.
Alobaidi was resettled in Phoenix, Arizona and became a citizen last year. He now works for the International Rescue Committee, helping other refugees find housing and other services.
Alobaidi is excited about the upcoming election. "This is the first time I will practice democracy," he said.
Nada al-Rubaye said she never voted in her native Iraq. She fled the country after her son and several other family members were killed in the country's violence.
The Baghdad-born artist and another son spent a few years in Turkey, but in 2013 were settled in Phoenix.
She became a U.S. citizen in September 2019. "I am so excited!" she said about the election. "It's so important for a person to feel like they belong to a country," she added.
Habtom Gezhey fled Eritrea after being forced to join the military. At first, he lived in a refugee camp in neighboring Ethiopia before being resettled in Florida in 2012.
Now a truck driver moving goods across the U.S., Gezhey lives in Jacksonville with his wife, Eyerusalem - whom he met at the camp - and their two young children.
"I'm ready to vote. We had no election in Eritrea, no Constitution."
Lian Kual never voted in Myanmar, where elections were criticized as fraudulent during many years of military rule.
In 2008, Kual fled his country for Malaysia, and in 2014 was resettled in Salt Lake City, Utah. Kual, who works at Walmart, became a citizen this year.
"I feel so free to be part of the United States of America," he said. "I already registered (to vote)...now, I'm waiting for my ballot. It's a really big deal."
I'm Susan Shand.
The Associated Press reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Bryan Lynn was the editor.
Words in This Story
persecution – n. discriminating against someone
resident – n. one who lives in a certain place
fraudulent – adj. false, untrue