February 3, 2008
New York's Newest Citizens Hungry to Cast Their Votes
whom they will vote for, though some are a little uncertain about how to vote
(they are hoping someone at the polling station will explain it to them). They
come from Mumbai, India;
and Georgetown, Guyana,
and their political opinions and insights on the eve of New York State's
presidential primary on Tuesday have been little noticed by polls and pundits.
Ikramullah, 33, is an accountant from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, who is voting Tuesday for the first
time since becoming a United
States citizen two years ago. She is
supporting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in part because of her plan for
health care but also, she said, because Mrs. Clinton is a strong woman who
handled the scandal involving her husband and Monica Lewinsky with courage and
to sit there and be supportive during that time, when she was humiliated in
front of the whole world, she must have a spine that's made out of steel, or
else it would have cracked under all that pressure," said Ms. Ikramullah, who
lives in East Harlem.
Ikramullah, Maria Elena Granada, 54, a housekeeper from Cali, Colombia,
will be a first-timer on Tuesday. She registered to vote at her swearing-in
ceremony in Brooklyn in January 2007. She took
an unusual path to citizenship: she used some of the $1,000 she won in a
contest on a Spanish-language radio station, WSKQ, known as La Mega, to pay the
filing fee for her citizenship application.
Granada already knows her polling station (Newtown
High School, near her home in Elmhurst, Queens) and the
time it opens (6 a.m.). She, too, is voting for Mrs. Clinton.
"Look at Argentina," Ms.
Granada said, referring to the election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the
first woman chosen as president there.
primaries in New York
and other states will be a decisive moment for the Republican and Democratic
presidential campaigns. But on a much more personal scale, New
York's primary will be a momentous occasion for New York City's first-time immigrant voters.
registered to vote the day they officially became citizens, and others waited
months or even years. Some have followed the campaigns as closely as any
American-born blogger, and have formed nuanced opinions about the
McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the impact of the Kennedy family's
support of Senator Barack Obama and the decline in President Bush's approval
rating. For many, the simple act of voting, even in a primary, is a thrill,
marking their status as bona fide Americans.
like doing my First Communion," said Oscar Escobar, 52, a maintenance worker
from Medellín, Colombia, who lives in Rockaway Park, Queens, and is voting for
the first time this week in the United States. "It's a day that you don't
immigrant city, about 37 percent of the population, or 3 million people, are
foreign-born. A sampling of immigrant voters in recent days illustrated the
excitement this hotly contested presidential race has generated among a number
of ethnic groups and the varied, off-the-cuff views many have of the
Clinton has earned wide support in several disparate communities, including
among Guyanese in Richmond Hill, Queens; Indians
and Bangladeshis in Jackson Heights, Queens; and Haitians in Prospect Heights,
in those neighborhoods described President Clinton's years in the White House
as a peaceful, prosperous time for America, and they felt that a vote
for Mrs. Clinton would recapture some of that.
know Obama," said Mohammed Ali, 57, a fire safety director who lives in South
Richmond Hill, Queens, and is casting his
ballot for the first time this week after becoming a citizen in 2005. He is
originally from Ogle, Guyana. "I know Bill Clinton. I
came to this country when he was president, and I know what he has done. For
that reason I give Hillary a nod over Obama."
Tejpaul, who is from Mumbai, India, runs a jewelry store with her husband on 74th Street in Jackson Heights. She is considering voting for
Mrs. Clinton, whom she affectionately described as a "back seater" in her
husband's administration. "She knows what to say and what to do," Mrs. Tejpaul
said. "It's nothing new for her. She's been there."
store, Global Jewelers, is a short walk from Roti Boti Shaheen, a Pakistani,
Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant that has a blue "Hillary" campaign poster
taped to the window.
Woodside, four Colombian immigrants, including Ms. Granada and Mr. Escobar,
gathered one recent evening at the offices of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit community services
group. All four had taken citizenship classes there, and all four — including
83-year-old Matilde Ospina — plan on backing Mrs. Clinton when they vote for
the first time in the New York
Clinton does not have a lock on immigrant voters. Nash Khan, 51, a friend of
Mr. Ali's and a day laborer from Georgetown, Guyana, is casting his ballot —
his first — for Mr. Obama, who he felt would bring a new energy to the White
House. "I just see him as a young guy," Mr. Khan said. "He's new. Even though
he may not have the years of experience, he still has a good agenda he's
immigrants interviewed, the slowing economy seemed their main concern, and
several of them mentioned their fears of a recession more often than they
mentioned the debate over immigration.
Koobial, 51, comes from the town of Cromarty, Guyana, and owns a West Indian restaurant called
Kaieteur Express Restaurant on Liberty
Avenue in Ozone
One afternoon, Mr. Koobial swiveled back and forth on a stool, staring at the empty
tables and chairs in his restaurant. After 20 minutes, three people came in,
and all ordered the same $8.99 dish: spicy chicken fried rice.
wants to spend money," Mr. Koobial said. "Everybody's holding back."
Koobial, a registered Republican, planned to vote for Senator John McCain.
"He's a guy who reaches across the aisle to work with the other side," he said.
In four of the past five presidential general elections, he has supported the
Democratic candidate, explaining that his vote "swings either way."
it remains unclear what role immigrant voters will play in the primary.
Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the Graduate Center at
the City University of New York, said roughly 30 percent of voters in the city
are foreign-born, a bloc whose political leanings are increasingly hard to
study, directed by a political scientist at Barnard
College, found that first-time
immigrant voters in New York City
defied traditional voting patterns in the November 2004 election, with more
than 18 percent of the new voters choosing President Bush compared with 15
percent of native-born voters.
are a very diverse group, just like the native-born electorate is very
diverse," said Mr. Mollenkopf, a political science professor. "Russians and
Dominicans are not going to be voting the same way, any more than Puerto Ricans
and the Irish are going to be voting the same way."
wall of the Benoit Barber Shop, a three-chair establishment in Prospect Heights,
Brooklyn, there are large framed photographs
of Nelson Mandela and Malcolm X. One day in 2004, the owner, Sylvain Benoit,
clipped the front page of The Daily News and taped it to the wall below Malcolm
X, where it has remained ever since. The clipping shows President Clinton with
his wife at the Democratic convention and the headline reads: "Bill and Hil Wow
Benoit, 61, a soft-spoken father of seven and grandfather of seven from Port-au-Prince, Haiti,
said he had nothing against Mr. Obama, but he had been a longtime supporter of
and so Mrs. Clinton would get his vote.
evenings, after Mr. Benoit closes his shop at 8, his friends and customers
linger, talking politics and sports in Creole and playing checkers on an old
board that the players rest on their knees. On Thursday evening, however, there
was little chatting: the Democratic debate was on television.
John Eligon contributed reporting.
(PHOTO CAPTION: At a
community agency* in Woodside,
Matilde Ospina, second from left, and Oscar Escobar discussed the primary on
* Make the Road New York
** With Co-Executive Director Ana Maria
More on: Community and Electoral Organizing