Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Arizona

Newest Citizens See Beyond the Bitterness as They Ready First Votes

Interviews with newly naturalized U.S. citizens reveal a hunger to participate in the 2016 presidential election.

The immigrants had recited their oath, sung (or mouthed) the national anthem, and President Barack Obama had congratulated them via video. Before they could claim their U.S. citizenship certificates, a bespectacled woman in a specially bought black-and-white dress approached the lectern.

“I just want to say I’m very happy to be here today,” Maria De Jesus Diaz Zermeno, 52, who emigrated from Mexico as a toddler, told those in the drab Tucson, Arizona, courtroom. “I’m most looking forward to the voting privilege.”

Interviews with Zermeno and others among the 98 people from 17 countries who were naturalized that mid-September day provided a fresh perspective on a bitter election. As the campaign between Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump continued its descent into bile, the newest Americans prized the virtue of participating. These citizens had waited years, sometimes decades, to join the electorate.

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Maria De Jesus Diaz Zermeno, center, applauds during the ceremony where she became a U.S. citizen in Tucson, Arizona, on Sept. 16, 2016.

"From the first time I stepped into this country, I said this is my home, I am going to fight to stay," said Vesna Hrnjic, 51, who arrived 17 years ago as a widowed refugee from war-torn Bosnia. "When the oath came, I started crying and shaking. I can’t tell how I felt at this moment. I was so happy, flying, oh my gosh, I am American, I am free. I can never lose from my mind the day I got citizenship."

The winner on Nov. 8 will determine how the U.S. treats those who want to come, especially from countries like Bosnia and Herzegovina, whose population is 40 percent Muslim, a plurality.

Trump has proposed a ban on immigration from Muslim countries and last week said without evidence that people were pouring over the U.S.-Mexico border "so they can go and vote." Clinton favors welcoming more refugees and creating a path to citizenship for those who arrived illegally.

From October 2015 through June, 718,000 permanent residents applied for citizenship, up 8 percent compared with the same period leading up to the 2012 election, according to Homeland Security Department data compiled by the Pew Research Center.

In order to qualify for citizenship, permanent residents must be "attached to the principles of the U.S. Constitution" and of "good moral character" and pass an English and civics test, among other requirements. The process typically takes at least six months, meaning many now getting naturalized applied as Trump or Clinton were emerging as the likely nominees.

Zermeno decided to pursue citizenship so she could cast a ballot for the first time, for Clinton.

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Maria Luisa Acosta Peracta celebrates after her naturalization ceremony in Tuscon on Sept. 16, 2016.

Since declaring his candidacy last year, “I just saw so much negativity coming from Mr. Trump and I said, ‘Wait a minute, this is not OK,’” Zermeno said. “This is not the person who should be running the country. I can’t just be somebody who talks about it. If that’s how you feel, you should act on it and try to do something to change it.”

The government calls voting “both a right and responsibility” and facilitates registration at naturalization ceremonies. In Tucson, that fell to workers from the Pima County Recorder’s Office, who set up a table in the courthouse lobby. With one more naturalization planned there before the Oct. 10 deadline, those alongside Zermeno would be among the last to make the cut.

The second-floor courtroom filled quickly after doors opened at 8 a.m. Prospective citizens checked in and received white envelopes containing lyrics to "The Star-Spangled Banner," a pocket Constitution and a protective cover for their naturalization certificate (used to obtain a passport and register to vote). Little girls in fancy dresses, cousins in headscarves and brothers in cowboy hats claimed seats behind them, holding cameras and smartphones.

“Is everyone excited to be here today?” Immigration Officer Myrna Mace asked. “It’s all about the celebration today of you guys becoming U.S. citizens. Inside the packets you also have a small United States flag. So feel free to wave your flag at whatever point you feel you want to wave it.”

An hour and a sentimental photo montage later, U.S. District Court Judge Brenda Whinery made a plea. Serve on a jury. Volunteer time and energy to become a part of your community.

“And get out and vote -- I can’t stress that enough,” she said. “Please don’t take that lightly.”

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
Maria Luisa Acosta Peracta, right, registers to vote after becoming a U.S. citizen in Tucson on Sept. 16, 2016.

Hrnjic, who had three of her four children there to cheer her on, said she applied to become a citizen last year after Clinton declared her run. "I wanted a woman because we are strong," she said. "I want a woman to lead the country to show the world, ‘Look, I can lift my country up.’”

All but five naturalized in Tucson on Sept. 16 were racial minorities, who are a crucial and growing constituency for Democrats, and who compose 44 percent of Arizona’s population. Mexicans were the vast majority and, like Zermeno, few had forgotten how Trump kicked off his campaign: labeling their countrymen as criminals and rapists. Those from other countries saw more virtue in the Republican.

Ingeborg Hill, a white retiree from Germany, planned to vote for Trump, as did Nola Madvay, a white retiree from New Zealand. Reached by phone Monday, both said the recent release of sexually aggressive boasts by Trump in 2005, which prompted calls for him to quit the race, didn’t change their minds.

“I’m willing to take a chance with Donald Trump," said Madvay.

Manuel Espinoza, a 38-year-old construction worker, and Maria Luisa Acosta Peracta, the 40-year-old owner of a local snow cone shop, shared Mexican roots, a view that Trump disrespects Latinos and intentions to back Clinton.

Trump "thinks about money, business and power, but not people," said Peracta.

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Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg
A new U.S. citizen, right, looks over her certificate in Tucson on Sept. 16, 2016.

While naturalized citizens are less likely to vote than their U.S.-born counterparts, the opposite is true for naturalized Latinos, according to Pew. This year, naturalized immigrants compose 24 percent of Latino eligible voters nationwide.

The question of what to do with the 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. has divided Clinton and Trump since he rose to prominence with a pledge to deport them all. Some of the new Americans scorned shortcuts to citizenship.

Sara Gadde, a 39-year-old nurse, said if she had to follow the rules, why shouldn’t everyone?

“American citizenship is a privilege earned -- we have to earn it in a legal way,” she said. Creating a path to citizenship for people who’ve broken the law by entering illegally would devalue the efforts of people like her, she said.

Hrnjic, the Clinton voter from Bosnia, agreed.

"I came over here as a single mom and I followed rules from day one," she said. "You don’t have papers, you go back home and apply."

After the ceremony, people streamed out of the courtroom and posed for photos beside a poster of the Statue of Liberty and the words “Celebrate Citizenship, Celebrate America.”

Zermeno lingered. Her name had been called first to exchange her green card for a certificate testifying to her citizenship in her home of almost half a century. But she hung around as court officers recited 49 more.

"I wanted to see every one of the new citizens get their certificate," she said.

Then, she went to sign up to vote, joining 66 of her peers registered by the Pima County Recorder’s Office that day.