You never forget your first time.
I thought of my grandfather. He was a new citizen who voted for the first and only time at 74 before he passed away. He voted that year because of Proposition 187, a rabidly anti-immigrant ballot initiative in California. He wanted to make his vote against 187 count. I looked up to him and was proud of him for voting. It made me happy to follow in his footsteps.
Like my grandfather before me, my voice and my vote would help decide the direction of the country I now call home. I took it seriously. I studied the candidates and the issues, and I voted. And when I was done voting, I felt American.
Voting was especially poignant and sweet because as a New American citizen it was a right that I was not born with, but one I had to work hard to achieve. I had come to this country for a new life and voting was my way of saying that I was now part of this land. What happened here mattered to me and my family.
There are nine million immigrants in this country who can legally become U.S. citizens and register to vote, if not in time for 2022, then in time for 2024. This last year, we partnered with National Partnership for New Americans to encourage two million eligible immigrants to naturalize and become U.S. Citizens in time to vote in 2022. And we will keep working to encourage eligible immigrants to become citizens to naturalize, not because we want to pad the Democratic party, but because our democracy works when those who live here have a say in how we are governed.
I have had the pleasure of working with and encouraging other first-time voters. There was Ana. A resilient leader at the airport fighting for better wages and a union for her and her co-workers. As part of that campaign, she got it. She understood the connection between politics and her life. For the first time, she and her daughter, Rachel, went to the polls. They voted for the first time together, a powerful, mother-daughter duo. “For the first time my daughter and I went to vote for candidates that will fight for working people. If you don’t vote you don’t get to complain about our government.” She posted on Facebook that year, proudly displaying her I Voted sticker.
And then there was Jesus who voted for the first time after his father died due to medical complications. He felt the weight of his responsibility to vote, to be a voice for those who did not have a voice.
Voting binds us to this land. When we vote, we become part of the process whether or not our issues or candidates win. We are no longer outside the circle. We are part of the solution.
And despite howling from the right, new American voters do not vote in lockstep for any candidate or party. Like all Americans, New Americans vote our conscience and our values. We vote about the issues that keep us up at night—whether the electric grid will fail this winter or if there will be another mass shooting at our kids’ schools. And those issues are as varied as the stars in the night. And when we vote, our voices on all those issues, as varied as they may be, count too.
Elsa Caballero is the President of SEIU Texas which unites more than 7,000 healthcare workers, janitors, airport workers, and security officers into a powerful union fighting for workers and is on the Advisory Committee of Texas Right to Vote.