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Immigrant Leaders Organize New Citizens' Right to Vote

Bhutanese voters at satellite caucus in Iowa on Feb. 6, 2020.

Garang Majouk left southern Sudan during the country’s second civil war, forded the Nile River during his escape, washed dishes in Lebanon, and came to Iowa 19 year ago as a refugee.

So “good governing” is important to him, he says, explaining why he organizes new immigrants from the South Sudanese community in Iowa to exercise their right to vote.

Majouk is one of several immigrant organizers who work to ensure newly naturalized voters participate in the American political process. He arranges cultural and language accommodations for those who might have been refugees or come from countries that did not offer the democratic right to vote.

That was true for Majouk, whose country was embroiled in civil war.

“It is one of your privileges as an American to cast your vote, and see progress on an issue you are passionate about,” he said.

The moment they become citizens, immigrants are legally allowed to vote. But first, they must register. Registering new voters who are born in the U.S. -- like those who turn 18 -- is a challenge, according to youth-vote organizers. Even more difficult is registering new citizens who might find the U.S. election process confusing.

“There is a particular need for voter registration campaigns targeted toward newly naturalized citizens,” said Diego Iñiguez-López, the policy and campaigns manager at the National Partnership of New Americans, an advocacy group that partners with 37 regional refugee- and immigrant-rights organizations in 31 states.

Immigrant voters -- 23 million of them, according to the Pew Research Center -- will make up 10% of the eligible voters in the 2020 election for U.S. president. Organizers from different immigrant groups across the United States are working diligently to bring their communities out to the polls.”

The rising number of new American voters represent voting blocks that can have the power to sway the outcome of the upcoming presidential election, midterm elections, and elections for governorships and state legislatures,” Iñiguez-López said.

“These voting blocks will be especially critical in swing states like Florida, Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona and Michigan, where some of the largest groups of newly naturalized citizens reside,” he said.

Despite the number of eligible immigrant voters, their voter turnout rates have lagged behind native-born voters. In 2016, 62% of native-born eligible voters turned out to the polls, compared with 54% of foreign-born voters, according to Pew.

Bhim Magar, a member of Iowa’s Bhutanese community, attributed lower turnout to a lack of information.

“Most people in our community got citizenship in the past few years, but they were uninformed of both their right to vote and of the process behind voting,” he said. “They found caucusing even more difficult.”

Many immigrants, despite living in the United States for years, had never been contacted by a presidential campaign prior to 2020, Harka Thapa, one of Magar’s fellow organizers, said.

“In 2016, very few members of our community voted,” Thapa said. “For many this caucus was their first time.”

The Democratic Party has updated some of their primaries to make them more inclusive to eligible immigrant voters.

In Iowa, the state’s Democratic Party worked with the state’s different immigrant communities to establish 11 satellite caucus locations that provided language and cultural accommodations for voters whose English may have been limited.

At Hoover Elementary School in Cedar Rapids, most of the first-time voters caucused in at least nine languages.

In Nevada, caucus-goers had access to materials in three different languages, English, Spanish and Tagalog, the most commonly spoken language of the Philippines. Those who spoke other languages, however, had to seek their campaign information elsewhere.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has seized on this voter market.

According to his campaign, the 78-year-old Vermont senator has more than 250 translators across the country who translate tweets and graphics into multiple languages. During the debates, many of these translators live-tweeted Sanders’ responses in different languages, including Punjabi and Urdu.

Aung Win Maw works as an organizer of immigrants and refugees from Myanmar. After working the Iowa caucuses, he headed to Minnesota to help organize the Burmese Karen immigrant community around Super Tuesday.”

"For each immigrant group, we tried to set up a specific satellite caucus location based on geographic location, provided them with translation, and also with transportation to the location,” he said.

Most Burmese immigrants and refugees have never heard from a campaign before, he said.

“We tried to make the political process much easier for the Burmese community to access,” he said.

Magar and Thapa were stateless, and living in refugee camps in Nepal, when they moved to the U.S. in 2011. Magar gained citizenship in 2017, and Thapa in 2019. Both are adamant that with better outreach, their community will show up to vote enthusiastically.

“I think once they get citizenship for this beautiful country, everyone would want to vote. To use that right,” Thapa said.