Forty-four years since emigrating from Mexico for a farming job, Rutilia Ornelas decided to apply for citizenship this year for one purpose: To vote for the Democratic presidential nominee on behalf of the immigrant community.
She didn’t hear back about her application for months. Like many others caught in a nationwide backlog of naturalization applications, she feared her vote would slip away.
But on Monday, she broke free from the bureaucratic limbo. After 20 years as a permanent resident, she took her oath as an American citizen at a U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office in Milwaukee, Wis.
And on Tuesday morning, she voted for Joe Biden.
“I have accomplished my goal, so I am very happy,” said Ornelas, 65. “I feel proud that now my vote counts. I feel positive that it’s going to lead to something better, and is going to benefit us.”
Naturalization applications surged after President Trump’s election in 2016. But hundreds of thousands of citizenship applications remain pending with USCIS, with some applicants waiting two or more years for a process the agency aims to complete within five months.
Ornelas considered pursuing naturalization in the past, but felt nervous about going through the process. She believes that discrimination against minority and immigrant communities has worsened under Trump’s presidency, which emboldened her to finally apply. Living in a presidential battleground state gave her even more incentive.
In August, when Ornelas was featured in a Washington Post article, she was still waiting for her naturalization interview to be scheduled — which she had to pass to reach the oath ceremony, the final step of the naturalization process. After the article was published, she heard from other immigrants similarly caught in the final stages of their application process. On Tuesday, she said she was hopeful for those who had reached out to her.
“I wish and I hope that they already got it [citizenship] and got to vote, too,” she said.
Throughout the process, she was accompanied by her daughter, Paola Espinoza, an immigrant case coordinator with Milwaukee-based immigrant rights organization Voces de la Frontera. The organization said it has seen an uptick in interest among immigrants seeking naturalization in order to vote against Trump.
“The trend is super noticeable. There’s this feeling of empowerment in becoming naturalized, and being able to participate in the electoral process,” said Jacquelyn Kovarik, spokeswoman for the organization.
Naturalized citizens are a growing proportion of the electorate, numbering 23.2 million, or 1 in 10 Americans eligible to vote this fall — a record, according to the Pew Research Center. Newly naturalized citizens in 10 battleground states exceed the margin of victory from Trump’s 2016 election in those states, according to research from the National Partnership for New Americans, a network of immigrant and refugee rights organizations
But some newly naturalized citizens faced another hurdle in recent days: Confusion about whether they are eligible to register to vote.
In Massachusetts, for example, federal immigration officials erroneously told some newly naturalized citizens that they were not eligible to vote because they had missed the state’s voter registration deadline, according to the Associated Press.
Similar concerns about confusion over voter registration deadlines have cropped up elsewhere in the country in recent days, raising fears that these newly naturalized citizens could be deterred from voting even though they are eligible, said Nancy Flores, deputy director of National Partnership for New Americans.
In 20 states and Washington, D.C., newly naturalized citizens are able to register on Election Day even if the state’s voter registration deadline has passed, Flores said. Wisconsin allows same-day registration for voters on Election Day, regardless of whether they are a new citizen. In recent days, immigrant rights organizations have been running educational campaigns on voter registration deadlines for new citizens.
“The stakes are so high, and people know it, and this type of thing is worrisome,” Flores said. “It’s a series of obstacles that new citizens are facing at the last moment.”
Flores said she was moved by the resilience of immigrants who sought information on how to get naturalized and register to vote, and were able to cross the finish line in time to cast their ballot Tuesday.
“What’s most inspiring to me is that they’re so present. They’re looking forward to their oath ceremony to vote. For somebody like Rutilia, that certainly was” the case, she said.
Ornelas emigrated from Jalisco, Mexico, to Mendota, Calif., in 1976 when her husband got a job at a farm there. Her husband died, and she eventually moved to Milwaukee, where she took various cleaning jobs and raised her children.
As she prepared for her oath ceremony Monday, Ornelas said she was nervous and emotional. She and her daughter wore their masks, and the ceremony went quickly because only a few people were allowed to participate out of covid precautions.
Ornelas said she has witnessed anti-immigrant rhetoric and actions aimed at immigrants, and feared such sentiments may worsen without a new president. During an August interview, as she faced uncertainty over whether she’d be able to vote, she described why it was so important for her to finally cast a ballot: Voting was a way she could speak up on behalf of the immigrant and Latino community.
“I decided to become a citizen for my voice to count, and for the Latinos and all the minorities to be counted and to be one more in this country,” she said at the time. “It’s better rights for myself and for my community.”
On Tuesday, she skipped breakfast so she could vote as soon as possible. Once she came home, she had brunch with her family and celebrated.
It’s Election Day.
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