Durham County

Naturalized citizens celebrate first vote

Rosalinda Mondragon, center, walks with her daughters Ariana Grande, left, Zarah Grande and Crystal Grande during a march to the polls in Durham, N.C. on Sunday, October 30, 2016. Ruiz, originally from Mexico, became a citizen of the U.S. last year and voted for the first time Sunday.
Rosalinda Mondragon, center, walks with her daughters Ariana Grande, left, Zarah Grande and Crystal Grande during a march to the polls in Durham, N.C. on Sunday, October 30, 2016. Ruiz, originally from Mexico, became a citizen of the U.S. last year and voted for the first time Sunday. newsobserver.com

Like most civic duties, voting tends to be unglamorous. After work, or perhaps at lunch, most voters drive to a drab building, stand in line and fill out paperwork.

In downtown Durham on an unusually warm Sunday afternoon, though, Rosalinda Mondragon’s ballot-casting experience – her very first – featured colorful signs, the company of her family and a cheering section made up of activists and poll workers who erupted into applause when she emerged from the building.

Mondragon, who arrived in the U.S. from Mexico in 1989 at the age of 13, was among a group of nine first-time voters, all immigrants or refugees, accompanied by a march of about two dozen activists and organizers from Durham’s Five Points Plaza to the Board of Elections office on North Roxboro Street.

Church World Services, a nonprofit organization that helps resettle refugees, organized the march to highlight the desire of many immigrants and other first-time voters to participate in civic expression. This comes during an election season where the Republican presidential candidate, Donald Trump, has warned supporters that immigrants in the country illegally might seek to steal the election from him.

“I’m not even paying attention to what Trump says, because I know he’s a joke,” said Mondragon, who lives in Durham and works for the U.S. Postal Service. She is not affiliated with CWS, which is nonpartisan and has offices in Durham. “I’m just excited because the woman I’m going to vote for, she’s going to be the first woman president in history.”

Before the marchers set off, CWS refugee organizer Sijal Nasralla impressed upon them his belief in the power of their vote. He said later that he sometimes sees apathy toward civic engagement among immigrant and refugee communities, whose members are sometimes distrustful of political processes because of experiences with illegitimate governments. Nasralla, a recent graduate of UNC’s global studies graduate program, is the son of a Palestinian refugee – his father emigrated to the United States in the 1970s.

“To be counted for the first time, to have citizenship, is something many people take for granted,” he told the marchers. “We understand the importance of citizenship.”

Sufyan Abdullah, who left Iraq in 2012 with his family to get away from violence there, isn’t yet able to vote. The naturalization process requires five years of residency.

But Abdullah, who works as an organizer and translator for CWS, walked the five blocks to the polls anyway, holding a sign. He’s troubled by representations of refugees in newspapers and on TV but said the suspicion he’s encountered recently is nothing new. He said he hoped the march would show that immigrants are interested in the same things most other voters want for the country.

“This is a great country, and I’ve met great people here, but at the same time, I’ve seen some people look at your color or your dress and think because you’re foreign that you shouldn’t be here,” Abdullah said. “I’m here to raise voices that call for peace, that call for justice. I always hear people say in America, ‘Justice for all.’ And I want to see that – not just for me, but for everybody.”

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