Eugenia Medina was just a teenager when she and two friends left Mexico to work as housekeepers on Sanibel Island in Florida. More than 50 years later, her friends have returned to Yucatán and Medina has moved north to Milwaukee. It was there, on Saturday, that the 70-year-old waited for three hours in 40-degree weather to cast her first ballot as an American citizen.
Medina is one of the thousands of newly naturalized citizens across the nation who make up a critical multigenerational voting bloc in this year’s elections. Back in February, the Pew Research Center predicted that immigrants would constitute roughly 10 percent of the nation’s overall electorate, following the naturalization of 834,000 people in 2019, an 11-year high.
In a country that was built by immigrants, the upcoming election could be decided by them, too. Many of them lean toward former vice president Joe Biden, but to many, the mere fact that they can vote for either candidate is what matters.
Kim Lovich was one of the hundreds of thousands naturalized last year. The Canadian-born zoologist moved to California for work in the late 1990s but didn’t become a citizen for another two decades. The 47-year-old and her 18-year-old daughter filled out their first US election ballots together this month. Lovich realizes that had she waited any longer to apply for citizenship, her application might have gotten caught up in the delays caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, rendering her unable to vote.
Many of the immigrants now eligible to vote began their journey to citizenship decades ago, long before President Trump imposed severe crackdowns on immigration. But their paths hit another hurdle this spring, when naturalizations came to standstill for several crucial months due to the pandemic, leaving thousands hanging in the bureaucratic balance, unsure of when, and how, they might become citizens. When immigration offices shuttered in March, roughly 110,000 were waiting to take the oath nationwide.
Medina, who applied for citizenship last December, was sworn in this June on the same day as her citizenship tests and interview. Some immigration offices are opting to complete naturalization in one fell swoop as traditional indoor group ceremonies remain untenable amid the pandemic. In Michigan and California, immigrants have been sworn in from their sedans, and in Massachusetts and New Jersey, they’ve stood 6 feet apart outdoors in parks and on courthouse steps.
Still, thousands won’t be able to take the oath until well after the election due to ongoing delays and a backlog of applicants.
Julián Gómez, a 28-year-old native of Argentina living in Montana, applied for citizenship in mid-2019, but he didn’t sit down for an interview until last week. Online it appeared that all naturalization ceremonies had been canceled through the end of the month, so he had little hope that he would be able to vote in this year’s election. But he ended up taking the oath within hours of completing his interview. And because Montana is one of nine states that allows registration through Election Day, he will be able to vote.
As many as 300,000 would-be citizens will not be as lucky as Gomez due to recent technical adjustments and pandemic-related delays, according to a new report by the Immigration Legal Resource Center, a national nonprofit for immigrant rights. The United States Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) agency has resisted bipartisan calls for remote citizenship oaths, arguing that it lacks the legal authority to hold them.
Medina and Gomez have lived in the United States for decades and support Biden. They point to the Trump administration’s crackdown on immigration and refugee communities as their reason for applying for citizenship last year and voting blue in 2020. Gomez fretted constantly about what might happen if Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers ever arrived at his door. Medina said it was the treatment of fellow Mexicans at the border that pushed her over the edge.
Javier Sandino, 37, also said that the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant policies energized him to apply for citizenship.
Originally from Nicaragua but a Miami resident of almost three decades, he watched uneasily as naturalization application prices rose and the Trump administration added red tape. The father of three felt like he was walking on increasingly thin ice, fearful of any misstep, such as a traffic ticket, that might derail his path to citizenship, or, worse, lead to his deportation. Indeed, in some cases, the USCIS has requested documentation for minor, decades-old offenses such as unpaid parking tickets or traffic violations, according to the Immigration Resource Center report.
Still, Sandino, who works in development for Mazda and just bought his first house in what he called “the definition of the American dream,” will vote in his first election to reelect the president for a second term, citing the strength of the economy and Trump’s support of the automotive industry.
His approval of Trump was shared by 27-year-old Disha Patel, a resident of Charleston, S.C., who emigrated from the populous coastal Indian state of Gujarat in 2015. Patel took her oath this July on the same day as her interview and closed on her first house in October. She plans to vote in-person for Trump, as well as the incumbent Republican senator, Lindsay Graham, on Election Day.
“I don’t expect anything to change dramatically based on who I choose, so I’m going to stick with who I feel comfortable with right now,” she explained. “I get that there has been a crackdown on immigration, but a president should think of his country first and his policies are doing that.”
There is limited recent data on party affiliation patterns among immigrant groups, although they tend to lean left. A December survey by the Pew Research Center found that among Hispanic immigrants who are eligible to vote, 53 percent identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party, while 39 percent say the same about the Republican Party.
If and how newly naturalized citizens vote could decide the fate of key 2020 battleground states. In Florida, for example, the number of citizens naturalized from 2014 to 2018 is almost three times more than the margin of victory — 112,911 — in the 2016 election, according to a report by the National Partnership for New Americans, a coalition of immigrant advocacy organizations. In Michigan, the number of new citizens is six times the 2016 margin of 10,704 voters.
Trump won both states, as he did in Wisconsin, where Mexican immigrants make up the largest swath of newly naturalized citizens, a fact Eugenia Medina is acutely aware of. So after waiting much of Saturday to vote for the first time in her 50 years living in America, the new citizen went home and spent another few hours phoning her fellow Wisconsin residents to make sure they vote, too. She did the same on Sunday.
“Why? I want the best for this nation and I feel like it is my job now to motivate people," she said. “We want change, we need change, and I want to help make that change happen.”