New US citizen refugees excited for first presidential vote

PHOENIX (AP) — They came fleeing war and persecution in countries like Eritrea and Iraq, handpicked by the United States (US) for resettlement under longstanding humanitarian traditions.

Now, tens of thousands of refugees welcomed into the US during the Obama administration are American citizens, voting the first time in what could be the most consequential presidential contest of their lifetimes.

With some states already sending out early ballots, the first-time voters from Arizona to Florida are excited but mindful of their responsibility in helping to choose the country’s next leader. The winner will decide the future of the very resettlement programme they benefitted from and that US President Donald Trump has hollowed out and could halt altogether in the fiscal year starting October 1.

“Most refugees come to this county escaping political systems where the government is not their friend,” said International Rescue Committee Vice President of resettlement Hans Van de Weerd, a top agency that brings refugees to the US “to have their voices be heard is very powerful”.

Republican and Democratic administrations resettled an average 95,000 refugees annually over four decades, but the Trump government whittled that down to a cap of 18,000. Only about half that number have come in this year amid the coronavirus pandemic. That downward trend seems likely to continue if Trump is re-elected; his Democratic challenger Joe Biden has promised to pump the annual refugee goal to 125,000.

Bilal Alobaidi (above) and Lian Kual. PHOTOS: AP

There are no voter registration figures for refugees, but the National Partnership for New Americans predicted that 860,000 immigrants of all kinds would gain that right this year by becoming citizens even in the face of barriers like an 83 per cent increase in naturalisation fees, from USD640 to USD1,170.

Through its citizenship classes, the International Rescue Committee has helped around 6,000 refugees and other newcomers become Americans each of the last few years. Other groups have also helped refugees become naturalised.

Department of Homeland Security figures in recent years have shown refugees and asylum-seekers are the immigrants most likely to gain citizenship, with a naturalisation rate of over 70 per cent during their first decade in the country. Refugees can apply for citizenship after five years as permanent residents.

Once they become Americans, they can register and vote.

“So many want to vote this time,” said Basma Alawee, a refugee herself and an organiser for the Florida Immigrant Coalition who has been holding webinars helping other refugees prepare for Election Day. Born in Iraq and now a US citizen living in Jacksonville, Florida, Alawee said she also plans to cast her first presidential ballot on November 3.

Here are a few other refugees around the US voting for the first time:

Bilal Alobaidi recalled elections in Iraq under Saddam Hussein when only the leader’s name was on the ballot. The only possible choices were “yes” or “no”.

“And if you said ‘no’, something bad could happen to you,” said Alobaidi, who arrived in the US in December 2013.

He was resettled in Phoenix, a desert city with sweltering weather like that of his hometown Mosul, and was naturalised last year.

A former social worker with the International Organization for Migration, Alobaidi now works for the International Rescue Committee, helping other refugees in Arizona find housing and other services.

Alobaidi said he looks forward to voting for the candidate he chooses.

“This is the first time I will practise democracy,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

Lian Kual never cast a ballot in Myanmar.

In 2008, Kual initially fled his country for Malaysia, and in 2014 was resettled in Salt Lake City, where he works on the overnight shift stocking shelves at Walmart. He was naturalised this year.

“I feel so free to be part of the US,” he said. “I already registered (to vote) at the DMV, and now I’m waiting for my ballot. It’s a really big deal.”