Citizenship was a long time coming for Jeimy Soto Leon. She left Costa Rica in the summer of 2005 on a work visa to teach Spanish language in Gwinnett County public schools, with her three-year-old son Hasari in tow.
Last month, after more than 14 years in her adopted home, Soto Leon said the pledge of allegiance in the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services field office in Atlanta and picked up her naturalization certificate, then immediately registered to vote.
“It’s a right and a duty and a privilege to vote,” Soto Leon, 43, said at the field office in late September. “As a citizen, you have to play an important role.”
Excitement is building among new citizens in Georgia as they gain voting rights for the first time ahead of the upcoming elections, according to newly minted citizens and the volunteers who help them register. They represent a small but energized part of the voting population with no voter history. A handful of votes might be important in tightly contested statehouse races, experts say.
“There are a number of legislative districts that are undecided,” Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia, said. “Particularly in that northern arc of Atlanta.”
Since 2016, voter registration volunteers have helped about 30,000 people at the Atlanta immigration field office fill out their voter registration paperwork minutes after becoming citizens, said Marla Bexley-Lovell, an administrator with the League of Women Voters of Georgia. That accounts for almost half of the nearly 62,000 people whose naturalization applications were approved during that time, according to federal data.
News stories and word of mouth are building awareness of next year’s elections within Georgia’s immigrant community, particularly for those about to be naturalized and able to vote, Bexley-Lovell said. She’s heard the buzz grow in anticipation of the 2020 elections for a while now, more so than in years past when she has helped sign up new citizens.
“It kind of feels like we’ve been in the election cycle for many months,” Bexley-Lovell said. “I think more people really, really know now they want to register to vote.”
Count Falicia Olusanya among the eager. The 32-year-old mother of two from Lagos, Nigeria, split time between her home country and the United States for a few years after her 2012 marriage to Dada, her newly naturalized husband. She became a citizen late last month after living with a green card in Georgia for four years. She immediately registered to vote.
“I feel good and happy,” Olusanya said at Atlanta’s immigration office in September. “There are a lot of benefits to being a U.S. citizen.”
It is far from a given that these new voters can sway any elections in Georgia, said Dan Franklin, a political science professor at Georgia State University. New citizens likely count for tens of thousands of voters, barely a rounding error in a state with 7.4 million people on the rolls.
And newly naturalized citizens might not vote as some expect the foreign-born population will, Franklin said. The new citizens might defy conventional wisdom that they are likely Democratic voters and instead embrace a position more closely associated with Republicans – immigrants should complete the citizenship process rather than live in the U.S. without legal documentation
Lack of experience casting ballots in Georgia could also pose a hurdle for newly naturalized citizens, said Trey Hood, also a University of Georgia political science professor.
“It can cut both ways,” Hood said. “People could be very excited, and also people may have no past history with voting and may not know what to do.”
That’s where voter advocates like Helen Butler step in. Butler, the executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, said they have already fielded questions from new citizens unsure of how to vote. They plan to ramp up education and outreach efforts for the 2020 elections starting in January, Butler said.
“We’ve got lots of people registered to vote and we try to follow up with them to make sure they don’t encounter any problems with voting,” Butler said. “And I think they will participate next year.”
For people like Raisel German Calvo Alvarez, 40, stepping into the voting booth next year will mean reaching the end of a long journey to find a stable place in the world. It took Alvarez and his sister four months to cross into Ecuador from their home in Cienfuegos, Cuba, then walk through Mexico before reaching the Texas border to seek political asylum in 2012. They slept on park benches and bus stations along the way, Alvarez said. He got a job as an electrician in Georgia after receiving asylum.
Alvarez, newly naturalized and registered to vote, reflected on his journey as he gripped a small American flag and his citizenship certificate at the immigration office late last month.
“There’s so much more opportunity here,” Alvarez said. “It’s such a blessing.”