Migrants without the right to vote: “My dream was to vote in these elections to be part of the change”

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More than 300,000 foreign residents in the United States will be left without their ballot for a delay in obtaining citizenship

Patricia Bezanilla (Monterrey, 1994) came to the United States when she was eight years old. He has lived most of his life in Tampa, Florida. However, at 26 years old he still does not have the papers and therefore cannot vote. It was not until she married and had children with a Cuban resident that she was able to initiate the procedures to naturalize as an American. She is one of hundreds of thousands affected by the delays in face-to-face appointments caused by the pandemic. “It was my dream to vote in these elections, my vote is one more vote to contribute and be part of the change,” he laments. In the report by the migrant organization Boundless together with the Legal Resource Center for Foreigners, it indicates that there are at least 300,000 US residents who have not been able to become citizens before the deadline for voter registration. Most of them reside in states where the elections are resolved by just a few hundred votes, such as in Florida, the state of Benzanilla. “It is always very tight,” says the Mexican. “I feel that if I had voted, it would have been a change. One more vote ”.

Those thousands of votes are capable of deciding the elections in Arizona, Texas or Florida, a state with 36,887 migrants who have not obtained citizenship in time and where Donald Trump won by 1.2 percentage points in 2016 and Al Gore lost by 537 votes in 2000. The immigrant vote, especially the Latino vote, is key in these elections marked by a pandemic that has been primed with migrant residents, the hate speech of President Trump and his policy of zero tolerance for immigration in a country where 14% of the population was born abroad.

In this scenario of an electoral storm in Florida, Benzanilla was so eager to vote that he considered doing so despite not having sworn to the flag yet. His advisor, Gloria Ávila, director of the Immigration Defense and Legal Services program, warned him that for this act they could withdraw his Green Card, the residence card. Ávila explains that being part of an electoral process is very important for a foreigner trying to nationalize. “It can be for wanting a change, for putting a voice and being part of a very important moment and it can be the privilege and right of patriotism. They want to collaborate and put their voice in their local government ”, he indicates. Ávila, a Cuban who came to Florida 54 years ago, remembers the first time she was able to vote. “It meant something very important and it was very exciting. I didn’t know what that was. You can’t vote in my country and I didn’t know what the process was like, ”he says. Ávila currently has 350 pending processes to obtain citizenship or residency, but cannot do anything to speed up the bureaucracy. “My hands are tied, the date to register the vote has passed,” he acknowledges with regret.

Laura Vázquez, an analyst with the organization for the rights of Latinos in the United States, assures that it is not by chance that so many voters have been left out of these elections. “The pandemic forced the offices to close, but there are many ways to respond,” says Vázquez and indicates that the US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) has not purposely sought an alternative. “Neither remote interviews, nor any kind of remote procedure to take the oath” like those who hoped to be able to use Benzanilla to vote on time. Vázquez recognizes that in all electoral years there is a peak in applications to obtain citizenship and to be able to vote, and that usually the immigration services prepare for it. Except this year. “The lack of preparation and refusing to adopt new policies in the face of the pandemic leads to the conclusion that they were not interested in registering those votes,” he says.

USCIS spokesman Dan Hetlage says Vázquez’s data, which only focuses on queued candidates, is an incomplete way to evaluate his department’s work. “USCIS is proud to naturalize thousands of potential new voters daily, whether in election year or not,” he stresses and is quick to ensure that in 2019, the US naturalized 834,000 citizens, the highest number of processes in last 11 years. Hetlage reports that laws prevent virtual oath ceremonies.

The latest polls suggest that the results of these elections will be very close, so the fight for the complex and unpredictable Latino vote is intensifying. Trump appeals to the Cuban vote and presents himself as the ideal candidate against Castroism while accusing Joe Biden of being a communist. For his part, the Democrat addresses Latinos, whom he recognizes for their work in the United States and promises to end the separation of migrant families at the border.

In this indecisive duality is Benzanilla, who little by little assimilates the disappointment of having to wait four years to be able to participate in the destiny of what she considers her country and home. “I am a Democrat, but I don’t like the candidate. I do not see that he is good in the debate, he does not have strength and the answers they give me do not satisfy or convince me ”, he admits. Therefore, if he had been able to vote, he acknowledges that he would have voted for Trump despite having benefited from the Obama Administration’s immigrant policies that allowed him to work and study, policies that Trump ceased when he came to power. “For all the years that I have lived in the United States, I see that he [Trump] feel the essence of America. We have problems of immigration, of communism, and the Republicans solve the economy better, which is the most important thing ”, he enthusiastically details. The deadlines to register in Florida, Texas and Arizona, the states with the highest number of pending applications, have passed. Yet in North Carolina and Pennsylvania, there are 12,540 deciding votes in the race to get the papers on time.

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