SPECIAL SERIES : 2004 National Election
New Citizens Exercise Most Important Right
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Among the 100 sample questions stated in the U.S. Department of Justice’s A Guide to Naturalization is question #93: “What is the most important right granted to United States citizens?” The answer: “The right to vote.”

In San Francisco there are on average 2,400 people sworn in during the United States citizenship ceremony at the Masonic Auditorium every month. The 2004 election is the first opportunity many of them will have to vote.

Immigrants are often type cast as people who run across borders to take jobs from American people, but many immigrants are more patriotic than native-born citizens. They become citizens, but it’s a struggle every step of the way. It can take years to become an American citizen -- from reams of paperwork, hefty application fees and countless hours of studying. Native U.S. citizens often take voting for granted or decide not to bother with voting.

Liz McMillan came to the end of the citizenship process this year after eight years of waiting. On the day she took her citizenship test, she sat nervously in the waiting room. When called she was received coldly by the immigration officer. She was asked to read 10 questions on the sheet of paper and answer the questions. Line for line, she read and answered each question. At the end of the exam, the officer congratulated her on passing the test, but requested additional information - five years worth of tax returns by 8 a.m. the following day. If she could not deliver the copies, her application would be denied and she would have to reapply.

“Going through the immigration system, I feel like I mastered a new skill – patience,” says McMillan. “It’s a waiting game, but a worthwhile wait because now America is my home and I can vote.”

McMillan is excited about voting for the first time and submitted her absentee vote weeks ago. “I’m invested in the voting process and take it seriously. I did lots of research to making sure I’m well informed before deciding to vote for Kerry,” says McMillan. “I think people are truly fed-up with Bush – but he might win. Hopefully not, but maybe.”

McMillan is not alone with her anxiety about this election. When new citizens are asked what they think about the current president, they are very vocal in their opinions.

“Where do I begin?” gasps Amelia Dizdarevic, who came from Bosnia seven years ago and became a citizen in August 2003. “The current so-called president has failed the American people, divided the country and pushed the world aside.” She goes on to say that President Bush has violated major international agreements such as the Geneva Convention as well as human rights and environmental laws.

“He has created a mess in the world by preemptively attacking a foreign country, attending to special interests and mixing religion and state affairs, the consequences of which will be felt in America for many years,” says Dizdarevic. “And above all, he has lied to the American people.”

This feeling of betrayal continues among new citizens. Claire Bannister and Harvey Balack moved to the United States during their childhood and neither felt it was necessary to apply for citizenship until shortly after the last presidential election.

“I do not have a lot of confidence that our current president has the best interests of the citizens of the United States at heart,” says Bannister. “I disagree strongly with him about his ‘moral imperatives’ and his dogmatic and faith-based belief that what he wants is right or proper for our – or any other - country. He has all the qualifications of a dictator.”

It is an American’s birthright to vote, and some take it for granted. But those who are sworn in as new citizens take the whole process very seriously, especially the ability to cast their vote.

“Where normally the Republican Party tended to be fiscally conservative (at least in theory), the current party just pays lip service to these values and have been horribly irresponsible,” says Balack, who is originally from the United Kingdom. “I have gone from being a Republican to being a Libertarian, and I'm voting for the Democratic Party.”

This year, for many of these new citizens, will be their first chance to vote and have a voice in their new country. America is the home of the brave and the land of the free, and although America may be hated by many it’s still the land of opportunity whose citizens, both native-born and immigrant, call home.

“Voting is the main tool in the hands of citizens that enables them to change things in their country - if you do not vote, don't complain," says Dizdarevic. “The right to vote is one of the main advantages of U.S. citizenship, and yes, I do plan to vote. Regardless of how illusionary it may seem, every vote counts.”

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