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How to vote as an immigrant and a citizen

"Are you a citizen?" the woman standing in front of my apartment building in Manhattan asked me this summer. She had a clipboard with a sign-up sheet in one hand, which she extended to me as I walked towards her. "I'm looking for registered voters who would like to sign a petition to..." I took the clipboard before she was done explaining. "Are you an American?" she asked again. Smiling, I unhooked a pen as I told her, "Yes, I'm an American."

It's unlikely the woman understood my eagerness to sign that petition, whose purpose I now barely remember.

After living in America for more than a decade, I could finally sign such a legislative document, thanks to my recent naturalisation. It was the first time I got to have a say in America's future. In that moment, I was no longer a Cameroonian immigrant only - I was an immigrant and a citizen. This country, which used to be other people's country, was now my country, too.

On Nov 8, when I cast the first vote of my life, it will be in this adopted country of mine. I'll be a citizen and an immigrant voting in an anti-immigrant age when, around the world, citizens and immigrants are clashing over who belongs where.

In the United States, millions are cheering the idea of building a wall and barring Muslim immigrants. In the Dominican Republic, the government has deported countless Haitian immigrants and their native-born children, telling them to go find a new home.

In Europe, protesters have carried placards proclaiming, "Refugees Not Welcome". At the bottom of the Mediterranean, there's a graveyard filled with aspiring immigrants.

The language is unpleasant, but the sentiments expressed are not baseless.

Even in the richest of countries, resources are limited. Millions of Americans have to compete for jobs with immigrants willing to take less pay. According to Sonia Nazario, in her book Enrique's Journey, in some parts of the US, "the crush of immigrants has contributed to a decline of many public services, namely schools, hospitals and state jails and prisons".

She adds: "Classrooms are crowded. Hospital emergency rooms have been forced to close, in part because so many poor, uninsured, non-paying patients, including immigrants, are provided with free care."

This notwithstanding, dozens of studies have revealed that immigration has helped make America the superpower it is today. A 2002 article by the conservative Cato Institute presented evidence that immigrants have "added to our productive capacity as a nation, enhancing our influence in the world".

Despite my pride in my new citizenship, I'm an immigrant first. If I were to wake up one morning forgetting that, by the end of the day I'd surely meet someone who, upon hearing my name or my accent, would say to me, kindly or unkindly, "Where are you from?", to which I might respond with stories about the beauties and complexities of my homeland. Then I'd carry on working towards the goals that brought me here.

In this pursuit, I share a bond with millions of my fellow immigrants - regardless of whether we're naturalised citizens, green-card holders, visa holders or undocumented; regardless of our race, culture or religion: We all arrived here bearing dreams.

While the citizen in me agrees that we must do something about the 11 million immigrants living in the country without legal documents, the immigrant in me is stunned by the branding of such immigrants as lowlifes.

While the citizen in me recognises that America cannot offer every immigrant the opportunity he seeks, and that America should take care of Americans first, the immigrant in me cannot help but hope for policies that will keep America, in the words of Langston Hughes, "the dream the dreamers dreamed",

Having been born in a country where the same man has been president since 1982 and voters laugh as they walk to polling stations because they believe their elections are a charade, I know what a privilege and responsibility it is to vote. I know of the great distance that separates a dictatorship masquerading as a democracy from a true, albeit flawed, democracy.

Considering this, and considering the sacrifices others have made so that I can live freely in this country, I do not take my right to vote lightly.

I've seen the best of America during my time here. When I was considering dropping out of graduate school because of financial constraints, an American professor helped me get a scholarship so I could complete my master's degree.

Twice, I had an American co-worker give me hand-me-downs because I couldn't afford to buy clothes. An American employer once said to me, at a time when I was questioning who I was, "You are a breath of fresh air."

Being black, female and an immigrant - and for a good portion of my life here, low-income, too - I've weathered my share of prejudice. But the empathy Americans have shown me far outweighs the unkindness. That is why, on Election Day, I'll be voting for empathy.

NYTIMES


  • Imbolo Mbue is the author of the novel Behold The Dreamers.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 21, 2016, with the headline 'How to vote as an immigrant and a citizen'. Print Edition | Subscribe