The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Immigrants who are first-time voters know how much is at stake next week

Ahmed "A.J." Mikhlif and his wife, Hend, when they became U.S. citizens in December 2019, the culmination of a five-year journey that began with their resettlement in Charlottesville, Va., in 2014 as Special Immigrant Visa holders because Mikhlif’s service as an interpreter to the U.S. government in Iraq meant they were no longer safe there.
Ahmed "A.J." Mikhlif and his wife, Hend, when they became U.S. citizens in December 2019, the culmination of a five-year journey that began with their resettlement in Charlottesville, Va., in 2014 as Special Immigrant Visa holders because Mikhlif’s service as an interpreter to the U.S. government in Iraq meant they were no longer safe there. (Kari Miller/International Neighbors)

Ahmed “A.J.” Mikhlif is 42 and he’s voting for the first time in his life next week.

Because back in Iraq, where civil unrest and corrupt regimes roil the government, voting was always “voting.”

“Here, you vote for two people or maybe three people,” Mikhlif said. “In Iraq, there was one person. It wasn’t voting. You like or you dislike that person. And that was all.”

Mikhlif and his wife became U.S. citizens in December, and they are joining the swelling population of naturalized citizens who are eligible voters.

Their numbers have nearly doubled in the past 20 years, according to the Pew Research Center — and they range from translators to busboys, physical education teachers to doctors.

They also include Dame Helen Mirren, who recently became a U.S. citizen and cast her ballot in the dusty town of Minden, Nev., and comic Jimmy O. Yang, whose shtick on his immigrant parents has endeared him to generations of kids both mortified and proud of their parents’ accents and quirks.

Welcome to the country, new Americans. This is a good July Fourth.

And they include Maha al-Obaidi. It took 66 years for her to feel like she was part of her own government. In Iraq, she said, no one knew if elections were fair. Then two of her sons and husband were kidnapped and the family had to pay exorbitant ransoms. They had to flee.

Today, she is in Astoria, Queens, voting as an American.

“Now, I feel this is my country, this is it. I have my roots here now,” she said.

She is hoping her vote can help change the U.S. policy — President Trump’s travel ban — that is keeping two of her sons trapped in Jordan.

Saba Barkneh’s first vote as an American couldn’t have been more, well, American.

“It was a drive-through,” she said. “It was easy. Done in 10 minutes. And I got a sticker.”

Nothing like what her relatives back in Ethiopia endure at the polls — including an effort just to travel to them.

“I’m learning from my family members that voting is a struggle there,” said Barkneh, 45, a marathoner and a registered dietitian at Goodwin House in Alexandria, a senior-living facility that has a program helping new immigrants become naturalized citizens. “Being able to reach the voting sites, people thinking, ‘My vote is not counting.’ . . . People don’t feel like their vote is making a difference.”

These first-time voters bring with them an appreciation for American democracy, the ideals they’ve been worshiping from afar for years. And they have the fire and urgency to keep this shining city upon a hill bright, especially as they see the darkness of this year’s election.

Mikhlif, who worked as a translator for the United States military in Iraq for eight years, was stunned to see the anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment when he, his wife and their children arrived in Charlottesville.

He works with other immigrants through the International Neighbors program there and is hoping to cast a ballot on Tuesday that will make some difference in not only policies toward immigrants, but also attitudes.

“America was built on the shoulders of immigrants,” he said.

The division and strife in America today have been shocking for the family of Diana Mateo, who immigrated from Guatemala when she was 9.

“That ideal they had in mind is tarnished,” said the 25-year-old paralegal in D.C.

Andrew Martin never voted when he lived in his native South Africa, which he left when he was 25.

“I am now 39. One thing that inspired me to vote here is the idea that my vote may actually count,” said Martin, who left his native country as it was still reckoning with perilous inequities despite the end of apartheid. “In South Africa, I never felt that way.”

He arrived in America in 2007 as “a wide-eyed young immigrant who was hopeful that he stepped right into the ‘American Dream.’ ”

“What I’ve seen since 2016 is not only embarrassing, it’s sad, often scary, and frankly extremely depressing,” he said, of the rise of intolerance, racism and failure to address climate change.

She was almost deported as a teen. Now she helps those like her.

“I know I am fortunate. I’m a White man who speaks English,” he said. “But I am completely turned off when people mention the ‘American Dream.’ This America is no dream — this is what people come to America to escape.”

This election reminds first-time voter Peter Edwards, 49, of unsettling times in Jamaica during his childhood.

“Given the current political climate and a father of two mixed-race children, I think it is even more important to demonstrate my commitment to decency, belief in environmental conservation and the need to address climate change along with social justice issues,” said the economist and marine scientist who lives and works in the D.C. area. “As a young boy in 1980 I witnessed how divisive and violent politics were in Jamaica as we were caught up in the proxy Cold War period. I remember my parents leaving the house to go and vote and warning us not to open the door until they returned. It was a scary time and unfortunately what I am witnessing here today brings back some of those memories.”

Grace Nkechi Okoro is urgent in her mission to get other Americans to understand the danger the nation is facing.

“Americans should be on guard,” said Okoro, 45, who lived in Cameroon and Nigeria before coming to the United States to study in D.C. more than 20 years ago. “When you have something very good, as good as Americans have it, they have to learn to fight to keep it and protect it, just like anything that is bequeathed to you.”

The arguments about voter suppression, the court hearings about mail-in ballots and the confusion in this election worry her. They’re too familiar.

“They are reminiscent of a corrupt regime,” she said.

So it was with a deliberate urgency that Okoro completed her citizenship process and took her daughter with her to vote in their new hometown of Frisco, Tex.

“Some of us who are immigrants, we’ve come from a place where things are much worse,” she said. “And we know how important this next week is.”

Twitter: @petulad

Read more Petula Dvorak:

It’s hard to see how huge a number 220,000 is. This will help.

In local jails, more than a quarter of the inmates should be in therapy, not behind bars.

Trump’s trying to woo suburban women. He’s got it wrong.

I found an undocumented worker, a pug, a cat and a baby who have paid more taxes than Trump