It took nine years for Nassir Faqiri to get his U.S. citizenship, but he finally raised his right hand in May this year and swore allegiance to his new country. Becoming an American took seven years longer than it was supposed to have taken for Faqiri, who came to the United States on a Special Immigrant Visa (SIV) for Afghans and Iraqis who worked with U.S. forces.
Afghan-born Faqiri started helping American troops in Afghanistan when they first came to the country. He left, with help from the U.S. military, after he was badly beaten up by a group of at least 15 men who called him a traitor to Afghanistan, after constant phone calls threatening his family and after his brother was kidnapped by insurgents.
“The target was me, but when they couldn’t get me, because I had protection, they took my brother,” he told The Washington Diplomat at a restaurant in Warrenton, Va., near where he lives with his wife and three children, one of whom is American-born.
Today, Faqiri is enrolled in college, speaks better English than many Americans and works full-time. And one of the first things he did when he pledged allegiance to the United States and became a citizen was register to vote.
“They gave me a voter registration application when I became a citizen and I filled it in and turned it into the DMV. They said they were going to mail it to the place where they do registrations, and that I’ll get my voter registration in a couple of weeks. I’m waiting and anxious to get it,” said Faqiri, “because I need to vote against Trump.”
Faqiri is not alone in his feelings about Donald Trump, the mogul-reality star who is now the Republican president nominee — or in his eagerness to register to vote. This year, on President’s Day in February, 20,000 new citizens were sworn in at 180 ceremonies around the country — a four-fold increase over the number of new citizens who were welcomed last year on the same day.
In an article in the Washington Post, reporter Ed O’Keefe cites California statistics that say the number of Hispanics — another group that has been targeted by Trump’s rhetoric — who have registered to vote doubled in the first three months of this year compared with the same period in 2012. In Houston, O’Keefe goes on, citing the Houston Chronicle newspaper, there are about 2,200 naturalization ceremonies a month, compared with 1,200 before Trump. “More than 80 percent of those naturalized then register to vote, compared with 60 percent previously,” O’Keefe writes.
Trump has shamelessly insulted a range of minorities, from Muslims and Mexicans to African Americans and the disabled. His heated rhetoric on keeping Muslims out of the country and building a wall with Mexico has struck a chord with many conservatives worried about terrorism and unchecked immigration.
In the wake of the Orlando mass shooting last month that killed 49 people, Trump has doubled down on his threat to close the country to Muslims and people from countries linked to terrorism, even though the shooter, who was of Afghan descent, was born in New York and was an American citizen.
Faqiri is opposed to Trump because of “his policies against my beliefs, against immigrants, against the U.S. Constitution.” Trump has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States.” Previously, he had suggested that mosques in the United States should be under surveillance and that a database should be established for all Muslims living in the country.
While Trump’s fiery rhetoric has appealed to voters concerned about radical extremists infiltrating the U.S., many security experts worry that lumping all Muslims together as potential terrorists or religious zealots will only alienate and possibly radicalize American Muslims, who tend to be more well-integrated than their European counterparts.
Faqiri said that in Afghanistan, he was just “your typical Muslim,” praying at the mosque but certainly not immersed in radical ideologies or even well versed in the Koran.
It’s when he came to the United States that “my knowledge of Islam improved, because people would ask me about the Koran, and I felt ashamed that I didn’t know enough to reply to them,” Faqiri said.
The Afghan, who from the age of 16 risked his life for the United States, was not yet a citizen when Trump made his controversial statements about barring all non-American Muslims from entering the U.S. Had such a policy been enacted, Faqiri could have been prevented from returning to his family and home in Virginia when he traveled abroad for his job, working for a company that is contracted with the U.S.-government.
“Sometimes, I wonder why people support Trump,” Faqiri told The Washington Diplomat.
“He is against what America is about and, because of his policies against my faith, against other races, against immigrants, I would not vote for him. I mean, the U.S. was built by immigrants. Trump’s family came here from Germany, so he’s an immigrant himself. How can he argue that immigrants are bad for this country?” Faqiri pondered.
He noted that the candidate was dialing back his anti-Muslim rhetoric “because he knows the bad impact it could have on his campaign.”
“There are millions of Muslims in the U.S. — that’s a lot of votes against Trump,” Faqiri said.
The Washington-based Pew Research Center has estimated there were about 3.3 million Muslims, adults and children, living in the United States in 2015, or about 1 percent of the total U.S. population. That number is expected to double by 2050, according to Pew.
Naturally, Faqiri isn’t the only Muslim who’s offended by Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. In June, Sameena Usman, the government relations coordinator for the San Francisco office of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) said: “The Muslim community of California feels offended by certain political candidates who have used divisive rhetoric and demonized our entire community.”
“CAIR-California is working tirelessly to increase Muslim voter turnout so that these and future candidates understand that the Muslim community has a high voter turnout rate, and that this community will use the power of the vote to send a clear message,” Usman said.
A survey conducted by CAIR in six states in January found that 73 percent of registered Muslim voters said they intended to vote in primary elections. Two-thirds of those voters said they would vote for Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
Come November, nearly one in three eligible voters will be Hispanic, black, Asian or from another racial or ethnic minority, up from 29 percent in 2012. While Muslims make up just 1 percent of the U.S. population, nearly one in five Americans today is of Hispanic origin. Latinos — who were maligned by Trump when, at the beginning of his nomination campaign, he called all Mexicans rapists and drug-runners, and vowed to build a wall on the southern U.S. border and make Mexico pay for it — are the largest ethnic minority group in the United States, and their number grows by around 1 million every year. As of 2014, Hispanics in the United States numbered 55 million, or 17 percent of the total population.
According to the Pew Research Center, 10.7 million more people in the United States are eligible to vote in November this year than were in 2012, and more than two-thirds of the growth in the U.S. electorate in the past four years has come from racial and ethnic minorities — mainly Hispanics, and particularly young Latinos who were born in the U.S.
But this demographic heft doesn’t always translate into votes. According to the Gallup polling organization, Latinos are the least likely of any major bloc of voters to be registered to vote. Just over half of eligible Latinos were registered in 2012, compared with 85 percent of non-Hispanic whites, 81 percent of non-Hispanic blacks and 60 percent of Asians, a poll conducted by Gallup in 2013 shows.
At the Carlos Rosario International Public Charter School in Washington, staff and students were hard at work on one of the few sunny days in May to change that. On a tarmac parking lot, new citizens and aspiring ones could visit voting booths to see how to make their voices heard (although they voted for things like their favorite singer and ice cream flavor). They were also taught how to register to vote and, if they were not eligible to participate in the November elections, were given suggestions on other ways to get involved in the U.S. democratic process.
“We are leading up to a national election and our role at Carlos Rosario is to educate immigrants, provide information and resources to students who are eligible to become citizens on how to do that and, to those who already are, on how to vote. Because a lot of people here have never voted before and don’t know how,” Allison Kokkoros, executive director and CEO of the school, told The Washington Diplomat, which profiled the charter school in its September 2015 issue.
“The hateful rhetoric around immigration that we’ve been hearing has galvanized citizens who are immigrants to raise their voices and transmit who they are — hard-working Americans who contribute to our society. Voting is one of the best and most powerful ways to do that,” Kokkoros said.
Carlos Rosario is one of many organizations working to mobilize immigrant voters this election season. In addition to civics workshops designed to educate immigrants on the voting process, nonprofits have been holding naturalization drives throughout the country, including in key swing states. The Pew Research Center has shown that while nearly 70 percent of immigrants became naturalized American citizens, only 36 percent of Mexicans do the same.
While Trump’s unusual candidacy seems to be galvanizing minority voters, Pew data notes that there have been other spikes in naturalization applications in non-election years. Reasons for the surges include pending fee increases and laws encouraging legal residents to become citizens.
Moreover, recent analysis by the Upshot showed that millions more white, older, working-class voters went to the polls on Election Day in 2012 than exit polls had initially indicated, according to the New York Times.
“This raises the prospect that Mr. Trump has a larger pool of potential voters than generally believed,” wrote the Upshot’s Nate Cohn. “The wider path may help explain why Mr. Trump is competitive in early general election surveys against Hillary Clinton. And it calls into question the prevailing demographic explanation of recent elections, which held that Barack Obama did very poorly among whites and won only because young and minority voters turned out in record numbers. This story line led Republicans to conclude that they had maximized their support from white voters and needed to reach out to Hispanics to win in 2016.”
While Republicans may still be able to count on their white, working-class, rural base to vote for Trump, the historic showdown between a billionaire businessman and the first woman to run for the American presidency is sure to attract legions of brand new voters to the ballot box this fall — many of them immigrants.
Every Vote Counts
Alelign Dessie will be voting for the first time in November. Originally from Ethiopia, he won the diversity lottery in 2008 and became a U.S. citizen 18 months ago.
“In Ethiopia, I was unable to vote because we didn’t have a democratic system. I’ve always wanted to exercise my rights and here I am. I became a citizen to exercise my rights and be an example for the immigrant community,” he told The Diplomat at the Carlos Rosario fair. Dessie voted in the Virginia primaries and plans to vote early in November, just to make sure his vote counts.
Although he’s a first-time voter, Dessie has been in the U.S. for other presidential elections — in 2008 and 2012. This time, he said, things are “a little bit different and a bit scary, especially for immigrants.”
“Hopefully, we will make our voices heard,” he said.
Francisco Ferrofino came to the United States from violence-wracked El Salvador 10 years ago and has overcome the hardship of being in a new country, with a different lingua franca, to become executive chef at two restaurants in Washington.
Although he can’t vote in November — he’s waiting to find out about the status of his citizenship application — he is working to get more people who are eligible to vote to do so.
“It’s important that people know that Trump is not the best president we could have. We have to get the vote out so that Trump doesn’t win,” Ferrofino said.
Meseret Zegeye has been a citizen for two years and will be voting for the first time in November. While many multi-generation Americans say their vote doesn’t matter — and some have threatened to not vote at all because they don’t like either Trump or the presumptive Democratic candidate, Hillary Clinton — Zegeye, like other new Americans, insisted that, “Every single vote, including mine, is really important.”
Back in Virginia, Faqiri agreed. Many of his classmates at college, where he is in his second year of a bachelor’s degree in international relations, have told him that individual voices don’t matter in U.S. elections. But Faqiri thinks otherwise and is applying for his wife to become a citizen, like him, so that her voice can also be heard in the U.S. democratic process.
And contrary to how some Americans may think an Afghan husband might treat his wife, Faqiri said, “I don’t tell her what to do. But I know she won’t vote for Trump either.”
About the Author
Karin Zeitvogel (@Zeitvogel) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.