New U.S. Citizens Vote for First Time in 2006 Elections

For thousands of Americans, Tuesday is just another Election Day. But for Americans like Carlos Enriquez, it's a novel experience. Enriquez, 34, a native of Colombia, is voting in this country for the very first time.

As is the case for some other newly-minted U.S. citizens who spoke to, Iraq and the economy — the two issues deemed most important to the majority of Americans — won't weigh as heavily on the choices Enriquez plans to make at the polls.

For Enriquez, who came to the United States in 1999 and became a citizen in July, issues like immigration laws, including the recently passed Secure Fence Act — which he opposes — are top of mind.

"I want to vote for people who look out for people like me, for candidates who understand the situation," said the insurance salesman, who now lives in Chicago. "Those people all the way at the top just want to kick you out. You don't feel like you're part of this country."

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Enriquez is one of hundreds of new U.S. citizens for whom the 2006 elections will be the first in which they are eligible to participate.

"I think it's really important for people like me to vote," Enriquez said. "We're not doing nothing wrong. We're growing this country."

Commissioner Guillermo Linares of the New York City mayor's office of immigrant affairs said the right to vote is extremely important to new Americans.

"It's perhaps the most important outcome of having become a citizen," he said. "Now that I represent all immigrants (in New York City), I'm fully aware of how motivated they are to participate and to vote."

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 61 percent of naturalized citizens registered to vote in 2004 compared to 73 percent of U.S.-born voters. Fifty-four percent of naturalized citizens came out to vote in 2004, less than the 65 percent of native citizens.

Enriquez said voting rights were among the main reasons he decided to become naturalized, and he registered to vote immediately after his swearing-in ceremony.

Aside from immigration rights, Enriquez said that affordable health insurance is another cause that will sway his vote, particularly because he works in the insurance industry. Improving public school education will also factor into his election decisions.

Education is also a major election issue for new citizen Shanthi Balasubramanian, 35, who is from India and now lives in Danville, Calif.

"I would definitely try to support somebody who is willing to do something about the public school situation, the teacher-student ratio," said the technology recruiter and mother of two, who was naturalized last month with her husband, also a native of India.

"We are here just because of our education. That's the foundation for a family and any child," she said.

Balasubramanian came to the United States 10 years ago on a work visa. She met and married her husband here, and her daughters, ages 6 and 4, were born in this country.

"In a way, we are more comfortable here," she said. "We feel there are more opportunities."

She worked for a company as a software engineer for eight years and has since moved on to technical recruiting, which she does part-time from home so that she can also raise her children. Because of her career, she is interested in candidates who care about the technology industry and are "working towards lifting up technology jobs," she said.

Javier Lora of Thornton, Colo., will be going to the polls Tuesday to cast his votes for the first time in a U.S. election.

The 27-year-old personal banker and father of a toddler son is from Mexico, where he voted one time before coming to the United States in 2000 to go to school.

"It will be interesting to see what it's like to vote here for the first time," Lora said. "It's exciting to feel that I count in this country."

Like Enriquez, Lora lists immigrants' rights among the election issues he considers most important this year. He is against the "wall" that the government plans to build along the U.S.-Mexico border.

"I don't agree with it," he said. "They say that's to keep immigrants out of the country, but this country is built on immigrants. It's just going to create a friction between Mexico and the U.S. A wall is not going to stop [people] from coming. There are going to be more deaths because of it."

The war in Iraq is also key for Lora. He said he is frustrated with the situation there, and would rather see all that money spent on improving education.

"I think this war has definitely gone overboard. Dozens of soldiers have died. I don't see it getting any better," he said.

As for how he'll vote on Tuesday, Lora said in an interview last week that he was still learning about the candidates and races, but, he added, "I'm definitely not a Republican."

Enriquez said he plans to vote for the incumbent governor of Illinois, Democrat Rod Blagojevich, but he's still deciding on the rest of the ballot. He does research online about the candidates every chance he gets.

"I'm really excited about (the election)," Enriquez said last week. "I wish it would be right away so I don't have to wait. I'm anxious to go in there and see the whole process."

Balasubramanian wouldn't reveal her political affiliations or whom she intends to cast votes for, other than to characterize herself as "kind of in the middle."

"I will always be about what's good for the country. Political party doesn't matter," she said.

The ability to participate in elections and have a say in who runs the local, state and federal governments provides newly naturalized immigrants with "a sense of empowerment," said John Ravitz, executive director of the New York City Board of Elections.

That is certainly the case for Enriquez, Lora and Balasubramanian. Balasubramanian said the right to vote, more than anything else, has made her feel like an insider in the United States.

"Otherwise, you still have more of a feeling of immigrant," she said. "Once you have the voting right, that gives more comfort that you are part of the country. You have a voice. I like that."

• Click here to visit YOU DECIDE 2006,'s complete election center.