Laila Martín García and son at the polls on Tuesday after her first time ever voting in the U.S. Credit: Courtesy Laila Martín García

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Laila Martín García immigrated from Europe to Pennsylvania in 2016, during a time of instability on the continent.

After helping others with voter registration, translating election materials, and working as a political organizer, Martín García applied for United States citizenship. She did it for one main reason: to vote.

“Voting is the most powerful expression of belonging,” Martín García, 36, told Billy Penn.

Martín García’s naturalization ceremony was four days before Pa.’s May 2022 primary, but she wasn’t able to cast her first stateside ballot. Under U.S. law, you have to be a citizen for 30 days before you’re eligible to register.

“If we had automatic voter registration, I could’ve voted in the primary,” Martín García said, noting that in Spain, all citizens of voting age are automatically placed on election rolls. Participating isn’t always a cake walk; when Martín García moved to Harrisburg, her home country was about to face a secessionist revolt that spurred police violence.

For naturalized citizens across the Hispanic and Asian diaspora, navigating their first U.S. election can be difficult. No part of the citizenship process focuses directly on voter education, leaving many to wade through a political system that doesn’t resemble the one back home.

There are approximately 490k naturalized citizens in Pennsylvania, according to the National Partnership for New Americans, where Martín García works. That’s around 4% of the state’s overall population, with the majority living in the Philadelphia metro area. Around 85,000 of these citizens naturalized between 2016 and 2020, per the NPNA — a tally coincidentally close to the margin by which President Joe Biden won the state over Donald Trump.

Nearly three-quarters of these new voters come from Asia and the Americas, where the legacy of American intervention can be polarizing.

“They come here for freedom, but there’s a sense of disbelief and concern,” HIAS Pennsylvania Director Cathryn Miller-Wilson, 55, told Billy Penn. Her organization, which helps guide people through the citizenship process, has worked with several immigrant groups who’ve expressed this fear.

The United States has intervened in national politics across Latin America since the era of the Monroe Doctrine.

“Politics is defined by the legacy of the [Cold] War,” said Manuel Portillo, 61, director of community engagement for the Welcoming Center, who immigrated to the U.S in 1984 from Guatemala. In his role, Portillo fosters long term relationships with immigrant communities in Philadelphia by running programs that help identify civic leadership opportunities.

As recently as the early 2000s, the U.S government faced accusations of supporting coup attempts in Venezuela and Honduras, but has a long history of disposing leftist leaders and interfering in elections.

Even more recently, two American citizens were implicated in the July 2022 assassination of Haitian president Jovenel Moise. Miller-Wilson said some Haitian refugees had difficulty separating the complicated legacy of U.S militarism back home with what it means to participate in federal and local elections.

“The president was assassinated last July… So you come here,” Miller-Wilson said. “But then you think, ‘Can I safely vote? Did the thing that I fled follow me here?’ — because the U.S was involved.”

Liberal vs. conservative: not a familiar battle

One of the starkest differences between American politics and those across Latin America and Asia? The terms “liberal,”  “conservative,” and “progressive” don’t hold the same meaning.

“Those words don’t mean anything to our people,” said Mohan Seshadri, the executive director of the Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance. Launched in 2020, API PA combines grassroots organizing with policy work and multilingual direct voter contact to increase political participation.

Seshadri, 28, told Billy Penn that API PA had more success canvassing in Asian communities when focusing on specific issues, like healthcare access and labor rights, than by using political generalizations.

“I wouldn’t say that these terms like conservative or liberal mean anything to a lot of our folks, but on the values, our folks are fundamentally progressive, and they want access and care and equity,” they said.

“They are words used by Spaniards, so that’s not the language that defines our political positions in modern times,” said Portillo, of The Welcoming Center.

Latin America isn’t a monolith, he said, but so-called right-wing groups often espouse strong support for the use of traditional military forces, while left-wing groups do not. But factions in Latin America viewed by the state as left-wing often include guerilla fighters, so the classification can feel too broad to be useful.

Many new citizens also grapple with what Portillo called the “psychology of immigration,” where the stress of acculturation can create a paralyzing, paradoxical fear around civic engagement: Immigrants coming from countries with low levels of free speech carry the baggage of suppression while adjusting to an environment that has ridiculed others for not seeming grateful.

“People are fearful of contradicting those around them,” said Portillo. “They’re thinking, ‘I have to be respectful, I have to honor this country,’ right? At the same time, they don’t feel like they can really be themselves because of the fear that has been instilled in them in the societies where they come from.”

These fears pop up in ways both large and small. For Martín García, of NPNA, it impacts how she talks about politics in public.

“I need to teach myself not to do it, but every time I criticize policies we have in place that I find unfair, I always have to start by sounding thankful for the opportunities this country has given me,” she said. “It’s exhausting.”

For others, those worries can lead to self-censorship — mostly out of a need for self-preservation.

Gayborhood resident Vania Miller, 48, became a citizen in 2019, but when she first immigrated to the U.S in 2002 to escape violence in Brazil, “politics weren’t a priority.” It was just a few months after the Sept. 11 attacks sparked waves of Islamophobia and civilian surveillance under the Patriot Act, so Miller, who said she “looks Arabic,” was afraid she would be deported based on the color of her skin.

“I was afraid of being treated differently,” Miller said, noting she stopped feeling that way after Obama was elected. “I was afraid to write anything in emails that could be perceived as negative.”

HIAS PA director Miller-Wilson said this kind of fear can be combatted by reducing isolation, so the organization connects immigrants with wraparound services to address other challenges they may be facing.

An example: HIAS PA works with many Ugandan immigrants fleeing LGBTQ persecution — the country has only narrowly avoided imposing the death penalty as punishment for homosexuality. The org connects these refugees with the William WAY LGBTQ Center.

“It’s about building trust bridges one person at a time,” said Miller-Wilson. “Before you know it, you have bridges with 10 people, and that becomes a community that can make you feel safe and less alone.”

API PA volunteers knock on doors in South Philadelphia to spread the word about the upcoming election Credit: James Oswalt / API PA

The election process can feel liberating — but cumbersome

On top of contending with new political ideologies, many naturalized citizens are also navigating new election procedures.

Depending on country of origin, many Latin American immigrants aren’t used to a bureaucratic and (relatively) transparent municipal government. In cities across Honduras and Guatemala, for example, street gangs often  control of public services in cities and provide a sense of social belonging.

“The concept that you would have a local form of government that you can vote for, where you can go to their meetings, and where you can protest them … I think that’s often new for many newcomers,” said HIAS PA Director Miller-Willson.

The Welcoming Center works with many immigrants who are “unaware of the decision making process” in City Council, said engagement director Portillo, so the org developed two programs: the Immigrant Leadership Institute and the Intercultural Wellness Program. In the first, participants spend 3-4 months addressing challenges immigrants can face in Philly, from a lack of ESL accommodations to misinformation.

There’s also the matter of intraparty primaries, which don’t necessarily transpose onto electoral processes elsewhere. In Brazil, where Vania Miller is from, there isn’t an electoral college and winners are chosen via direct elections (unless no candidate receives more than half the vote and causes a runoff, which is pretty common). The idea of downballot candidates and questions is also new, Miller said.

“I wasn’t informed on any of that … There were questions where I didn’t understand how that could affect us,” Miller said in reference to the two ballot measures that appeared in November.

Some of the confusion around civic engagement can come from the citizenship process, which can focus more on filing the correct paperwork than creating a holistic understanding of democracy.

How does naturalization work? Once immigrants and refugees receive legal status and then a green card, they must wait 5 years before applying for citizenship. HIAS PA director Miller-Willson said the actual application process can take between 3-6 months, but processing delays from UCIS means people can wait 15 months before taking their oath.

Part of the process is a 100 question quiz to test knowledge of U.S history, culture, and civics. HIAS PA offers classes to help prepare, but some prefer to self study. Others can get a waiver of exemption if they have a medical disability, including PTSD or brain fog incurred from the migration process.

Miller, who self-studied for the civics exam, called the civics and English exams “a joke.”

“I wish it was more like a training on democracy in America,” she told Billy Penn. In recent elections, Miller has opted to vote by mail because it gives her time to research each candidate and clarify what she doesn’t initially understand.

Philadelphia has ‘I voted’ stickers in nine languages this Election Day Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

More language access, more comfort

One of the biggest obstacles new Americans voters face at Pa. polls: Not every county provides voting materials in multiple languages, which can make it difficult for non-native English speakers to feel comfortable voting in person.

Philadelphia election officials are increasing the number of languages election materials are provided in to nine, adding Portuguese, Vietnamese, Arabic, Russian, Khmer, and Haitian Creole, to the English, Spanish, and Chinese.

Other organizations are also stepping up. Ahead of the Nov. 8 election, API PA launched an election hotline to field questions from voters across the state in 15 languages across the Asian diaspora, from Mandarin and Korean to Punjabi and Khmer. Dozens of voters called in, with the majority from the Philadelphia area, per executive director Seshadri.

The most common questions: What is this election for? Am I registered to vote? When should I be voting?

“The first question on every one of our scripts is always, ‘What language do you want to have this conversation in?” Seshadri said. “What we’ve seen from the jump is that even for folks who speak enough English to have a conversation or speak perfect English is that they immediately perk up … it signals that this isn’t a scam call and that we aren’t trying to sell them something.”

It takes time for naturalized citizens to move past the unknown, plus concerted efforts to build community, said Portillo, of The Welcoming Center. For some who took years to naturalize, paralysis clears during their first election. “They appreciate having choices,” he said.

And for Martín García, Nov. 8 held a meaning that can’t quite be captured in exit interviews or an Election Day selfie.

“I am a Hispanic immigrant in central Pennsylvania. I’m a woman. I’m a mom, and I am somebody that is deeply worried about the future that I’m leaving for my son …those things are important for me. Those identities are who I am,” Martín García said. ” And when I vote, I bring all that to to the polling place.”