By Taryn Nobil, Medill, Immigrant Connect
It is March 15, the day of the Florida presidential primary. When I wake up in the morning, I immediately log onto the Florida Division of Elections website to check the status of my absentee ballot. Received. I slip on my jean jacket and place my Bernie 2016 pin proudly on my sleeve. It is my first time voting, and I literally wear my excitement on my sleeve. I update my Facebook cover photo to a goofy screenshot of Bernie on The Tonight Show with a caption encouraging my friends to go out and vote for their favorite candidate: “I made my vote count! Did you?”
The first person I Snapchat is Millie. I smile for a selfie, make sure that my pin is visible, add the “Bernie 2016: A Future to Believe In” geofilter and caption it, “My ballot was received! Did you vote yet?” Millie and I text each other Bernie Sanders gifs all the time. We tag each other in videos of his finest moments and memes of his silliest moments. We are friends who bond over the Bern.
Millie’s response takes me by surprise. A minute after opening my Snapchat, she replies with a sad-faced selfie. Caption: “I can’t. I’m not officially a U.S. citizen.” Yes, she feels another burn.
She didn’t tell me the particulars. All I knew was that she had immigrated to America with her family from Argentina when she was in her elementary school years. I didn’t know that she and her family were still struggling with the transition to American citizenship. We are from South Florida, where millions of immigrants have to deal with excessive paperwork and barriers that hinder the path to citizenship. Why had I never had this conversation with her?
I felt overwhelming confusion and a desire to have the immigration conversation with Millie. We’d been friends for years. How could I not know about such a huge part of her life? Here is one of the most ardent Bernie Sanders supporters I know, unable to vote in the Florida primary. It would have been her first time voting too, but she didn’t get to feel the rush of knowing that her vote counted.
Then it hit me—there are so many immigrants whose political enthusiasm is not accounted for. I stand in a place of privilege. I am not an immigrant. No one in my direct family is an immigrant. I can’t even say how many generations apart I am from my Russian ancestors. I don’t know how the Nobil name ended up in America. I don’t know much about the obstacles that immigrants face because they do not affect me. On March 15, I realized that they do affect many people whom I care about.
Millie dwells in America, works in America, studies in America and identifies as an American, yet she cannot exercise one of the most basic American rights—the right to vote. She told me that the reason she can’t vote is difficulty with paperwork. When Millie and her family moved to America from Buenos Aires, they were able to provide the paperwork necessary to become permanent residents, but the paperwork requirements for citizenship are different and caused and complicated. When Millie was 12, she had to skip the last few weeks of sixth grade and move back to Argentina for awhile—she wasn’t sure whether she would be able to come back. She soon made it back to Florida, but the difficulties continued.
When I finally talked with Millie about her status, she explained that the tests to become a citizen are expensive and a financial strain for her family. Four of the five members of her household are over 18 years old and would have to take the tests. Her little sister, she said, wouldn’t need to because she is only 15 years old. The cost of applying for U.S. citizenship is $680; multiplied by four, it’s almost $3,000.
Bernie lost the Florida primary. Hillary Clinton won by a landslide. I wonder how different the numbers would have been if every Floridian immigrant, including Millie, had the opportunity to vote. I wonder if Millie and all the other immigrants wanting but unable to vote could change the future of this country.