Volume 17 • Issue 20 | October 08 - 14, 2004.



Some Bushies among New York’s newest citizens

By Michelle Chen

The mid-morning sunlight flooded into the marble interior of the hall outside the courtroom, where dozens of people leaned against the walls in understated anticipation of one of the most important political events of their lives. A democratic montage of West Africans, Europeans, Latin Americans and other immigrants waited for the courtroom’s towering wooden doors to part at last.

The federal courthouse on Worth St. in Downtown Manhattan is the final destination of a winding journey, and each Friday, the ritual is repeated with rote grace: they enter the room as foreigners and leave as citizens.

Opposite the courtroom doors, volunteers from the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund stood ready with voter registration forms in Korean, Spanish and Chinese, hoping to harness a bit of the enthusiasm of freshly certified citizens with a first act of civic participation. It was the first day of October: one month until the election, and eight days until the registration deadline in New York State.

In recent elections, naturalized immigrants have registered to vote at a lower rate than native citizens, particularly Asians and Africans. But registered naturalized immigrants vote at a slightly higher rate than the native-born. Apparently, either registrants are a self-selected, motivated bunch to begin with, or something about acknowledging in writing their right to vote makes them more driven to actually use it.

Political views among immigrants differ perhaps as widely as their places of origin, and the scene in the courthouse would discourage the view of a monolithic immigrant “swing vote.” Though the socioeconomic status of immigrant communities dictates that they should veer left, traditional values are steering some right of center.

Sitting against the wall, Joey Joson, a 34-year-old who came from the Philippines 17 years ago, filled out a form for his 78-year-old mother. She had decided to get sworn in today, he said, just in order to vote. “She likes Bush,” he said with a slightly befuddled smile. In her view, Bush’s “moral values are stronger,” and “She’s against those gays getting married … she’s so religious.”

For Jennifer Aejia, who came ten years ago from Ghana and was accompanying a friend to today’s ceremony, her first vote in an American election would be more an expression of dignity than a political statement. Though she said she was undecided on the presidential candidates and “not good at politics,” she was nevertheless “very glad I have the right to vote. … They can hear my voice.”

“People are really excited about voting,” said Judy Pisnanont, a 26-year-old legal intern with AALDEF, who started doing voter outreach at the courthouse this summer. However, she said, “It’s very unclear who most of these people are voting for.” She said she was also concerned that some of the new registrants would not be able to vote. “A lot of them are limited English proficiency,” she said. “I don’t know when they go to the polls what’s going to happen.”

The business of this morning, at least, seemed certain enough as immigrants and friends and family shuffled into the immaculate courtroom. For a few minutes, jean jackets and business suits, a babushka and an orange afro, countless shades of complexion, and a tangled mélange of foreign whispers — all peopled one sprawling wood and marble chamber, all presumed equal before the law of the oldest democracy. The judge led them through the pledge that has lasted through generations of social and political tumult. Just a few blocks from where the Twin Towers fell, and just around the corner from the federal prison where hundreds were detained after September 11, 2001, the immigrants swore to protect America “against enemies … foreign and domestic.” They listened to an announcement that might echo more hollowly outside the courtroom than within it: They now stood “equal in all respects” to other Americans.

One young woman dozed during the judge’s speech. An elderly woman in a babushka beamed and raised a shaky, shriveled hand in triumph. At the close of the ceremony, the judge reminded them that in the upcoming election, “When you are casting a vote, you are making a contribution” as participants in democracy.

The citizens then poured out of the courtroom, having completed a stunningly simple inauguration into a very complex society. And they seemed excited about their new challenges.

Daniel Senyah, a 49-year-old from Ghana who now lives in the Bronx, was looking forward to using his new opportunity to unseat the current president. “I don’t like his policies, and I don’t like the way he went in and invad[ed] Iraq.” Moreover, he would like to see a shift in U.S. policy toward his homeland, complaining that the current leaders “are not doing enough for the Africans.” And in his new home as well, he would like to feel more secure: “They are scaring people, you know, too much … we are living under fear.”

But his wife Joyce, also from Ghana, was less certain. Although she said she was leaning Democratic, “Right now I don’t make [a] decision yet … I’ll see.” She was feeling a pull from the Republican side via her pro-Bush brother. With a slightly dismissive tone, she said of her brother, “He don’t agree with gay people and all that stuff. … And he’s bold and he’s strong [like Bush], you know?”

Gina Rafael, a 26-year-old from Russia, found mere boldness in a leader less persuasive. She was able to participate in Russia’s fledgling election process three times and voted twice against Putin, and she was eager to vote against the incumbent again this November. “I just don’t support Bush’s politics on any of the issues,” she said. Having grown up in the first post-Cold War generation of Russians, she said after the ceremony, “It was important for me to get my citizenship … to participate in the democratic election here as a citizen.”

Mario Zelaya from Honduras was one of the last to grab a registration form from the table. Hustling to the elevator on his way back to the Bronx, the sprightly 53-year-old declared he was voting for Bush because “He’s everything through!” In other words, not a flip-flopper.

When the crowd had cleared, the volunteers counted 41 registration forms; over the past year, the counts have ranged from around 20 to 60. It was an average day for them, but a modestly extraordinary one for the new citizens, who had momentarily assembled at the cusp of political constants of history and political uncertainties ahead.



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