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No place like home: New Americans don't vote for many reasons, but life here might fix that

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 2, 2012 - Almost 50 years ago, and she can still remember those nights. Men with guns rattled the windows and doors of her home while Haniny Hillberg and her family hid in their beds. 

The men wanted her brother, a revolutionary who protested in the streets against the government as Bolivia edged toward revolution.

Hillberg was 15 then, just starting to pay attention to what the people in the streets were fighting for. 

“I came from a country that had a lot of revolutions,” she says. “In 50 years we had 55 presidents. At that time it wasn’t a country that you could just go and speak against the president. You were persecuted.”

Before she could get involved, Hillberg’s parents took her to the U.S. Embassy and applied for a green card. She moved to the States and, at 20, became a U.S. citizen.

In the 44 years that have followed, she’s voted in nearly every election.

“This is a country where I can express my views,” she says. “And that is why I go and vote.”

An individual experience

St. Louis is home to many small but thriving immigrant communities. All together, they make up almost 4.5 percent of the population, according to a report out this spring by Jack Strauss, an economics professor at Saint Louis University.

Hillberg, and many like her, might feel compelled to vote by their experiences in their home countries. But nationwide, naturalized citizens register and vote at lower levels than native-born Americans, even during presidential elections. 

The reasons for this are many, including language, education, connection and access.

The political culture of a person’s home country can also be a factor in how or whether they participate here. Did people feel their vote counted in their home country? Were there bribery and ballot-stuffing? Were they even allowed to vote?

“So you might have someone from a country where voting was not possible for a number of reasons,” says Uma Segal, a professor in the School of Social Work and International Studies and Programs at the University of Missouri, St. Louis. “So people who come here might not vote because they’re suspicious of the political process. On the other hand, you might have people at the other extreme who will vote because they’re so excited to be in a country where the norm is not to stuff the ballot boxes.”

The task of meeting their basic needs can also take priority for many new Americans. 

When Thong Tam’s family, who are of Chinese descent but came from Vietnam as refugees, arrived in St. Louis, they opened a restaurant and worked long days. 

“They were exhausted,” he says, and that’s true for many who come here and start building lives. "It’s hard to be civic-minded and go out and do what they need to do.”

Tam, president of the St. Louis chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, says that in 2010 the OCA had voter registration drives, visiting farmers’ markets and public places to speak with Asian members of the community about voting. 

They mostly just ignored it, he says.

“To them, it doesn’t sink it,” he says. “They don’t get that.”

For the older generation of the Bosnian community, Ibro Tucakovic thinks they lack a real connection to the United States and a sense that their vote really matters. They also carry with them what happened after the last general election many of them lived through, which was the spread of war. Because of that, he thinks, many have lost interest in voting.

“Some people are absolutely afraid that they’ll cast the wrong vote,” says Tucakovic, secretary of the Bosnian Chamber of Commerce. “They want to keep neutral.”

Get out the vote

In 2011, more than 2,400 people in the St. Louis metro area became citizens, according to the Department of Homeland Security

“It is my sense that more new Americans do get registered to vote here in St. Louis,” says Anna Crosslin, president and CEO of the International Institute, St. Louis.

That’s because after citizenship ceremonies at the Eastern District of Missouri federal courthouse, the League of Women Votersis waiting in the lobby to register them.

“This is a natural kind of thing,” Crosslin says. “They’re all pumped up, they just got their citizenship, and they go out and register to vote.”

The reasons she sees people voting are purely anecdotal, Crosslin says, but are influenced by their experiences from their home countries and from their adopted one. For people from relatively peaceful countries, a sense of what someone left and lost by becoming an American could inspire them to get to the polls. 

Crosslin saw this with her own mother, who came to the U.S. from Japan and became a citizen in 1957. She has voted in every presidential election since.

“So she takes that seriously because she had to give up her country to become an American.”

Refugees particularly may follow through and vote when they get the chance, Crosslin thinks, though they’re a small sliver of the total number of immigrants.

“By nature of who they are and the fact that they have experienced oppression, they are now in what they come to know as the land of the free, and they are going to vote.”

Live and learn

A person may be shaped by the culture, the system and a lifetime of small experiences in their home country. But once they’re in the U.S., the shaping isn’t necessarily finished. If education is a key to getting naturalized citizens to vote, then that education can happen here. 

“A lot of immigrants come here from countries where involvement in your government isn’t possible, so the paradox for having a right to talk to your legislators, to get involved in an issue, it’s something that doesn’t even exist,” says Vanessa Crawford Aragon, executive director of MIRA, Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates.

Classes like Beginning Citizenship at the International Institute stress the right of voting, what it means and why it matters for people on the way to taking their citizenship tests.

“So many people come from countries to this country where they’ve been violated, their rights have been violated, their expectations have been violated,” says Segal. “Even if you come, for example, from India. India is a democratic country, everyone can vote, but there’s bribery. A lot depends on how, when people come here, they truly believe that this is a different way of doing things.”

Organizations organize

Generally, several demographic factors influence whether people vote or not. They include age, income level, race and education, according to a 2006 report from the Pew Research Center.

But if issues such as education and income mean people are more likely to vote, then organizations can bridge that gap for other communities, says Michael Minta, an assistant professor of African and African-American studies and political science at the University of Missouri, Columbia. Take, for instance, the role black churches play in voter registration and getting people out to vote, he says.

In St. Louis, can organizations serving immigrant communities build that same bridge?

Perhaps, but the question is, what’s the priority of the organization, asks Richard Middleton, associate professor of political science at UMSL and adjunct assistant professor of law at Saint Louis University. Is it voting? Or is it more mundane issues, such as taking care of the seniors in the community or bone marrow drives, like the OCA holds? Is it registering new voters, which the Hispanic Chamber of Commerceis working to do through its website or bringing together other organizations to work on issues such as policing, like the Hispanic Leaders Group of Greater St. Louis?

“It may not be the mission or the goal of that organization at this particular time,” Middleton says. 

And, he points out, for organizations that are nonprofits, they also walk a fine line between working to help people understand issues and advocating for a particular party or candidate. 

Omar Maldonado, president of the Hispanic Leaders Group, thinks that what ultimately may work is for groups serving different immigrants to find issues that unite them and work together. 

Nationwide and at a local level, he says, you add up all the small percentages of different groups, and their voices could make an impact.

Tucakovic and Hillberg are working toward that in their own communities. But they also believe in the power of one vote.

“I always think, no matter how big or how small the vote, it will count,” Tucakovic says. “You can express your satisfaction or dissatisfaction by voting. At least you can say you did something.”

Hillberg now volunteers with political campaigns, knocking on doors and driving people to the polls. She also encourages people in her community to vote.

Regardless of where a person comes from, and how motivated or unmotivated they are to vote because of that, their vote, she says, still matters.

“One vote can make a lot of difference,” she says. “When I believe something, I say, hey, you need to come vote, you don’t have to vote what I believe. Exercise your rights. Let them know you’re here.”

"No Place Like Home" is the second of two-part project that came out of a fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Justice. Kristen Hare was one of 14 journalists from the U.S. and abroad chosen for the week-long fellowship at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College in Norman this past April.

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