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New American Voters Learn Finer Points of Democracy

  • Brian Calvert

Cambodian immigrants in Los Angeles, California, who want to vote in November’s U.S. presidential election are getting help this year. Some 60,000 Cambodians live in the area -- so election officials plan to provide voting material for them in the Khmer language. And in the nearby city of Long Beach, students at a citizenship class are learning as much as they can, as fast as they can.

At the United Cambodian Community, a civic organization in Long Beach, Cambodian immigrants are learning the finer points of American democracy.

This is in part so they can become citizens. And vote in the upcoming presidential election.

But Sara Pol-Lim, the head of the UCC, says it means more than that. “Not just passing the citizenship test, but learning the process, how to engage in civic engagement, understanding voting process, giving them an ability to understand what civic engagement is all about,” she explained.

This year, those who are qualified to vote will find it a little easier. The Cambodian community in this West Coast city has grown large enough to warrant having all voting materials provided in the Khmer language.

Even though she won’t be voting this year, Lorn Vouch is studying hard and following the issues. “I am feeling nervous and excited at the same time for the election. But I am still not able to vote yet because I am not a citizen," she said. "I have to wait about another half year. That’s why I'm trying to learn. To apply for the citizenship.”

For Vouch, the weak US economy is a top issue, since some of her family members have lost their U.S. jobs. “My daughter was working at a bank for several years, but she got laid off last year. My son-in-law also got laid off, four or five years ago, and has not been able to find a job since then. So both of them decided to go back to Cambodia. Maybe they are coming back this year to find jobs, but we’re not sure if they will be able to find one,” she noted.

While the students are sometimes lighthearted, they take the class seriously. Volunteer teacher Mitchel Skidmore says they’re wrestling with complicated issues. “Like how does the American government show democracy in two ways. There’s not a lot of people, if you talked to Americans on the street, who could answer that, probably,” he pondered.

“The best part is definitely the people. They love to come and learn. And when they mess up, it’s OK, they laugh at themselves and they love having a great time here, so that’s definitely the best part,” Skidmore stated.

In the middle of a tense election season - something to smile about.

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