Immigrant Voters Could be American Democracy’s Last Hope

We are fighting to preserve the democratic ideals that lured us to America.

The author’s daughter wears bracelets of Kenya and the United States, the two countries of her heritage.

The first time I was asked the question, I didn’t know how to respond.

“If American is so bad, why are you here?”

I was asked the question by an American man of European descent, who was a classmate at the University of California, Berkeley, where we were studying journalism. We had been embroiled in an argument that began when he stated firmly that Americans were “the richest people in the world.”

I was winning the argument by using information I had learned after living in the United States for over a decade. I informed him that, although they didn’t consider themselves poor, most Americans didn’t have money saved and therefore could not afford to pay bills if they lost employment or couldn’t work for a couple of weeks. My classmate himself was, like me, on financial aid. Without a comeback, he threw the awkward question at me.

It caught me off guard. It is one of the most offensive questions you can ask an immigrant. Some might even consider it racist. It shocked me because I had known the guy for nearly two years and there was no indication that he was of the type that could ask such a question. I was too shocked to even attempt to answer him.

Over the years, some form of that question had been directed at me and other immigrants who attempt to complain about injustice in the United States. Some like my classmate ask it in a less offensive way. But there are those who don’t mind forthrightly showing their disdain and might ask something like, “If you don’t like America, why don’t you go back to your country?”

All of them ask the question because they usually are in denial, or they just aren’t capable of formulating a practical argument to support their stance.

Many Americans seem comfortable with asking immigrants that question because they have never quite considered naturalized citizens like me as fellow Americans, who deserve equal treatment. We could live in America for decades, but as long as we weren’t born here, to them we are still foreigners, who must show nothing but gratitude for being in the United States.

This question stumps immigrants because, strangely, many of us seem to agree with the Americans who tell us that we have no right to complain because we are not citizens by birth. It is also hard to argue with them when we look at the failures and dysfunctions of some of the countries we left behind. Like our American detractors, most of us see naturalized citizenship as a privilege, rather than as a right accorded to us by the U.S. Constitution.

But thanks to the 2016 election of Donald Trump as president, the way foreign-born citizens like me view our American citizenship has changed.

Just as Trump’s election emboldened white supremacists, it awakened the immigrant vote. A study of U.S. Census data published in February by the Pew Research Center revealed that from 2000 to 2018, the number of immigrants eligible to vote doubled to 23.2 million, nearly 10 percent of the American electorate.

Traditionally, immigrant voter turnout has been low, according to the report. In 2016, for example, only 54 percent of eligible immigrants voted, compared to 62 percent of American-born citizens. There are no numbers for immigrant voter turnout for the 2020 elections yet, but given that there was record turnout, it’s likely that a record number of naturalized citizens voted.

The Pew study also found that between 2000 and 2018, Minnesota, Georgia, and North Carolina had the fastest growing population of immigrant voters, with numbers nearly tripling. Georgia — one of the handful of states where Trump is peddling unfounded claims of electoral fraud — saw its population of foreign-born voters go up by 193 percent.

For the last year, I interviewed dozens of African immigrants from various parts of the continent for Africa Straight Talk, a weekly podcast I co-founded with two other African immigrants. Generally, we in the African immigrant community are more interested in matters of our countries of origin than in the politics of our surrogate homeland. It’s common to find Africans who are so passionate about politics in the continent that they run for office or vote in countries they left decades ago.

Trump’s catastrophic presidency has taught us that if we want to remain in America, we must take advantage of the voting rights that come with our U.S. citizenship. We are learning that it’s possible to be engaged politically in two countries. In the last four years, more of us have become active in the American politics, both as voters and candidates for office. More than 30 African-born citizens, for example, ran for office in the 2020 U.S. elections.

Many of them won.

“When we don’t step up, leaders make decisions without thinking about us,” Sizi Goyah, a Liberian-born high school teacher, who ran unsuccessfully for a city council seat in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, told me after the elections. “We have to step up and force people to make decisions that show they know we are here.”

Many of the African-born guests of our podcast said that the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May was the wake-up call.

It was the first time we saw a president incite violence in ways that reminded us of the dictatorships we fled. Like never before, African immigrants were noticeable on city streets protesting the killing of unarmed African-Americans. Africans led Minneapolis crowds chanting, “Haki yetu! Haki yetu!” demanding their rights as if they were protesting dictatorships in the Swahili-speaking world. In the San Francisco Bay Area, Africans came together and led caravans for Black Lives Matter.

Perhaps no African immigrant is more vocal in telling America “we are here” than Rep. Ilhan Omar. Since she was elected in 2018 to represent Minnesota’s District 5 in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Somali-born Democrat has been President Trump’s focal point of questioning our Americanness by asking that question.

“She’s telling us how to run our country,” Trump told his supporters at a rally in September. “How did you do where you came from? How is your country doing?”

Omar responded by reminding the president that she is a citizen of the United States. Like her, more of us are challenging those who disparage our citizenship.

Recently on our podcast, we interviewed a Kenyan-born man named Yema Khalif, who along with his Ethiopian-born wife owns YEMA, an African-inspired apparel store in Tiburon, California. Khalif, his wife, and a friend were restocking the store at 1 a.m when two police officers showed up and demanded proof that he owned the business. The incident was caught on video and shared with news and social media. When I asked Khalif how residents of the town, which is 90 percent white, responded to the incident, he told me that most people had been supportive.

“But there are some people who say that as an African you should just provide your ID [to the cops],” he said.

“What do you say to them?” I asked.

“This is our country too,” he answered.

Thanks to the disastrous and scandalous years Trump has spent at the White House, more immigrants have realized that this is their country too. The vitriolic attacks Trump and his enablers in the Republican Party unleashed on us for the last five years have only made us stronger.

Our American-born children have also played a critical role in awakening us as they take to the streets to protest those who want to destroy the America we know.

They reminded us that if this country becomes like the dictatorships we fled, we’ll have nowhere to run.

Even from my 9-year-old daughter, I have learned a lot about patriotism and citizenship. She proudly wears bracelets on both wrists depicting the flags of Kenya and the United States. She has taught me to embrace both countries in equal measures, but also to speak up against injustices in both.

That is what patriotism is.

Most of us came to America because we desired to live in a democratic country. In America, we saw opportunities that didn’t exist in our countries of birth. I, for example, left Kenya when I realized that I had no hope of acquiring a university education. I had failed to make the cut for admission. It wasn’t because I was incapable of passing the standardized college entrance exam, which in Kenya is used as the sole yardstick for measuring one’s ability to succeed.

When I got out of high school, the country of 30 million people had only four public universities. Instead of building more to cater for the growing population, the government raised the bar so high that only a few qualified for admission.

Thankfully, I gained admission to an American college, graduated, and even went to earn a master’s degree from Berkeley, one of the most distinguished universities in the world.

Only in America!

That is the America most of us know — a welcoming nation, where you can work hard and chart your own path through life without being gridlocked in bureaucracies. And that is the America we will fight to preserve for our children. I am certain that as more of the 23 million immigrant voters realize what is at stake, they will head to the ballot box.

If they do so, we could be the ones who save American democracy by breaking the political deadlock between those who accept us, and those who think we should shut up or go back to the countries we left.

Award-winning Kenyan-American journalist, essayist, and humorist—a storyteller by any medium necessary. Reject of mainstream media.

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