After waiting a half-hour in line and still bleary-eyed from waking up before dawn on a Saturday, it was finally my turn. I was a new American citizen at San Antonio’s AT&T Center to vote early. When the poll workers realized this was my first-ever election, the entire team cheered and clapped. I beamed with pride. I’d spent 30 years waiting for this day.
It almost didn’t happen. I applied for citizenship in November 2019 and, when my interview was canceled in March, just days after San Antonio issued a stay-at-home order, I was devastated. In the end, I was lucky; my interview was rescheduled. On July 24, I was sworn in as a U.S. citizen.
Sadly, hundreds of thousands of green card holders who should have been naturalized in time to vote this year won’t be. The pandemic is to blame, yes, but so are new interview requirements imposed by the administration and the White House’s general mismanagement of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, including steep budget cuts. Naturalization wait times have increased more than 50 percent under our president. In Texas alone, more than 70,000 applications are pending.
A month after pledging my allegiance to America, I registered to vote. There was no way I was sitting out this election. I’m not alone. After the 2016 election, new U.S. citizens became one of the country’s fastest-growing voting blocs. Since 2010, Texas has added nearly half a million new immigrant voters, and their share of the electorate has increased by 1.5 percentage points, according to New American Economy. In previous elections, many races in Texas were decided by about a percentage point or less, so immigrant voters have the power to make a difference. That’s especially true this year, when Texas is considered a swing state.
The president may worry about how these new Americans will vote, but their contributions to our society and economy should go beyond political party. When more immigrants are naturalized, everyone benefits. Naturalized citizens earn nearly 50 percent more on average than noncitizens, and they have higher homeownership rates. According to an Urban Institute study looking at 21 U.S. cities, if eligible immigrants naturalized, the cities would see an additional $2 billion in tax dollars and a $5.7 billion increase in GDP.
My family has worked incredibly hard to build prosperous lives here, and we have directly contributed to local, state, and federal programs for Americans through paying taxes. Nonetheless, citizenship will increase our economic and civic contributions even more. Back in Mexico, my mom worked long hours as a nurse, but it wasn’t enough to make ends meet. After she married my stepfather, they decided to move to the U.S. where he had family. My mom worked in agriculture and restaurants. Though she wasn’t able to become a nurse here, she was able to give her children a better life. Today my siblings and I all have successful careers. My brother works for VIA Metropolitan Transit, my older sister is an administrative assistant for the U.S. Automobile Association, and my younger sister runs her own business.
For many years, I worked in advertising and the mortgage industry. After the president’s implementation of stricter anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies I switched to immigration law. As an immigrant who has worked tirelessly to give back to America, I was horrified by the travel bans, family separations, and the language being used to stoke fears about immigrants. I wanted to help immigrant families like my own, who came here wanting to make their lives – and their new country – more prosperous. Today I assist clients who are fighting removal and deportation proceedings, or wrongful detainment. I am the first point of contact for many immigrant families learning to navigate a system that works against them. By relentlessly exploring litigation solutions, my goal is to help keep families together.
As a new citizen, I see my vote as an important contribution. America used to be a symbol of acceptance and opportunity, a beacon of freedom. This election, I’m voting for these ideals. And that means using my voice to speak up for those who can’t: the Dreamers who still lack a pathway to citizenship; the 545 children separated at the border who still have no idea where their parents are; the immigrants and people of color whose communities have been devastated by the pandemic. As the mother to an 11-year-old son who was born in the U.S., having to explain all of this to him breaks my heart. Our children deserve better. We all do.
In past elections, I always felt a tinge of jealousy when I saw friends posting photos with their “I voted” stickers. Finally, on that sunny day in October, I had my own. I held it up and smiled through my mask to snap a photo. I voted and I urge all who share this privilege to do the same.