Christine Chung, THE CITY: New Citizens Cast First Votes in NYC After Getting Sworn in Just Ahead of Buzzer
Yaritza Liriano was sworn in as a citizen on Oct. 21 — and registered to vote that day, just three days before the deadline.
On Tuesday morning, the 27-year-old Bronx woman and her mother, Milvia Ventura, voted at Tracey Towers in Jerome Park. Originally from the Dominican Republic, they have lived in New York City for the past decade.
“I am really excited. Out of all the elections, I feel like this is one of the ones that will be in history for sure,” Liriano said shortly before voting. “I tried really hard to get everything in order before the election.”
Few New York voters may have been as thrilled to cast their ballots in Tuesday’s presidential election as those who recently gained U.S. citizenship — despite the pandemic’s three-month shutdown of the federal immigration offices on top of earlier slowdowns.
It took about an hour, including a wait in line, for Liriano and Ventura to cast votes for former Vice President Joe Biden. Liriano had to use an affidavit ballot because her new registration was not yet in the Board of Elections system.
Ventura, 46, became a citizen in January 2017. Since then, she said, she’s anxiously waited for the chance to vote against President Donald Trump, citing his immigration policies.
Ventura has a 30-year-old son who is a beneficiary of the Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals program, and she bristles at Trump’s efforts to end the program. She also opposes his actions to cut public benefits for low-income Americans.
“I am asking God to please make that change,” Ventura said in Spanish. She cast her first U.S. ballot in the June primary this year.
Liriano, who works as a branch representative for Capital One bank, said the presidential election is front and center for her.
“I don’t agree with the president we have right now. I don’t feel he represents me or anybody in my family so I thought it was very important especially in this climate for me to go and register and make my voice heard,” Liriano said.
And if Trump wins? “That’s part of the democracy. You gotta accept the results.”
‘I Have a Voice’
The Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs in March tallied about 1.8 million naturalized citizens in New York City as of the 2018 Census community survey — amounting to roughly one out of every four citizens. That year, 61,000 city residents became citizens.
Since 2000, according to a Pew Research Center report released in February, the number of newly naturalized citizens now eligible to vote has nearly doubled to a record 23 million, comprising about 10% of the country’s electorate.
Among them is Alex Bournery, a French professor at Columbia University. The ability to vote in elections was a big reason he sought citizenship after years with a green card.
He moved to New York City in 2014, two years after meeting his now wife. He applied for naturalization in May 2019, with the assistance of CUNY Citizenship Now!
“I moved here six years ago from France. I was like ‘Ah, Americans are like this, Americans are like that,’” said Bournery, 40, who lives in Harlem.
“Slowly I shifted from ‘Americans’ to ‘we.’ At some point I was like wait, I feel American. I say we and it became kind of natural. I pay taxes so I want my taxes being used in projects I support.
“I have a voice,” he added.
He was sworn in as a citizen on Oct. 14, registered to vote two days later, and then cast his ballot early in Washington Heights last week. It took him two hours, but he was struck by how the experience “was like kind of a celebration for Americans everywhere.”
He voted for Biden, because “the other one will do nothing for the environment.” Bournery believes this election is “the last chance” to avoid a point of no return for the future.
Missed the Boat
Many of those now voting the first time waited upwards of two years to become citizens, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services’ online wait-time estimator suggests. And that timeline was only lengthened by the months-long closure of the agency’s offices.
A USCIS spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment on the number of applicants currently awaiting oath ceremonies.
But Boundless, an immigration company that helps applicants file for green cards and citizenship, estimates that roughly 300,000 applicants nationwide — and more than 31,000 in New York — are waiting to be interviewed.
For 44-year-old Malvin Brown, who moved to New York in 2009 from Jamaica, the delay meant he missed the voter registration deadline by a month. Now that USCIS offices have resumed conducting interviews and ceremonies in person, Brown is scheduled to be sworn in on Nov. 20 in Tribeca.
“To be honest I was anticipating the election so I can exercise my right to vote, but unfortunately it didn’t work out,” Brown said. “So, next time.”
Anu Joshi, vice president of policy for the New York Immigration Coalition, said that the backlog serves as a “second wall that prevents new Americans from gaining citizenship, having protection from the Trump administration’s aggressive agenda against immigrant communities, and importantly becoming voters and participating in our shared democracy.”
Juliet Bernal, who became a citizen on Oct. 16, missed the state’s voter registration deadline by a week because between juggling school, her work at a bank and doctor’s appointments, she couldn’t make it to the Board of Elections to register in person.
Bernal, a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College originally from Colombia, said she is crestfallen at missing the opportunity to vote this year.
“Because as a Latina, as a woman, I think and I feel the responsibility to vote because I don’t agree with this administration. The way how things are against my community,” Bernal said. “Sometimes I feel that I am being a target because maybe I’m speaking in Spanish, sometimes I don’t want to speak too loud because I don’t want other people to feel uncomfortable.”
She said she’ll be ready for her next chance to vote.
“Next time, no medical appointments, no school, no excuses for me,” Bernal said.
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