2008 Presidential Election, Race and Racism
Professor Vernellia Randall
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New York's Newest Citizens and the Election


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Josh Haner/The New York Times

At a community agency in Woodside, Matilde Ospina, second from left, and Oscar Escobar discussed the primary on Wednesday.

They know whom they will vote for, though some are a little uncertain about how to vote (they are hoping someone at the polling station will explain it to them). They come from Mumbai, India; Port-au-Prince, Haiti; and Georgetown, Guyana, and their political opinions and insights on the eve of New York State’s presidential primary on Tuesday have been little noticed by polls and pundits.

Michelle V. Agins/The New York Times

Sylvain Benoit, who immigrated from Haiti, owns a barbershop in Brooklyn and said Hillary Rodham Clinton would get his vote on Tuesday.


Zeenat Ikramullah, 33, is an accountant from Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, who is voting Tuesday for the first time since becoming a United States citizen two years ago. She is supporting Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, in part because of her plan for health care but also, she said, because Mrs. Clinton is a strong woman who handled the scandal involving her husband and Monica Lewinsky with courage and grace.

“For her to sit there and be supportive during that time, when she was humiliated in front of the whole world, she must have a spine that’s made out of steel, or else it would have cracked under all that pressure,” said Ms. Ikramullah, who lives in East Harlem.

Like Ms. Ikramullah, Maria Elena Granada, 54, a housekeeper from Cali, Colombia, will be a first-timer on Tuesday. She registered to vote at her swearing-in ceremony in Brooklyn in January 2007. She took an unusual path to citizenship: she used some of the $1,000 she won in a contest on a Spanish-language radio station, WSKQ, known as La Mega, to pay the filing fee for her citizenship application.

Ms. Granada already knows her polling station (Newtown High School, near her home in Elmhurst, Queens) and the time it opens (6 a.m.). She, too, is voting for Mrs. Clinton.

“Look at Argentina,” Ms. Granada said, referring to the election of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the first woman chosen as president there.

Tuesday’s primaries in New York and other states will be a decisive moment for the Republican and Democratic presidential campaigns. But on a much more personal scale, New York’s primary will be a momentous occasion for New York City’s first-time immigrant voters.

Some registered to vote the day they officially became citizens, and others waited months or even years. Some have followed the campaigns as closely as any American-born blogger, and have formed nuanced opinions about the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, the impact of the Kennedy family’s support of Senator Barack Obama and the decline in President Bush’s approval rating. For many, the simple act of voting, even in a primary, is a thrill, marking their status as bona fide Americans.

“It’s like doing my First Communion,” said Oscar Escobar, 52, a maintenance worker from Medellín, Colombia, who lives in Rockaway Park, Queens, and is voting for the first time this week in the United States. “It’s a day that you don’t forget.”

In this immigrant city, about 37 percent of the population, or 3 million people, are foreign-born. A sampling of immigrant voters in recent days illustrated the excitement this hotly contested presidential race has generated among a number of ethnic groups and the varied, off-the-cuff views many have of the candidates.

Mrs. Clinton has earned wide support in several disparate communities, including among Guyanese in Richmond Hill, Queens; Indians and Bangladeshis in Jackson Heights, Queens; and Haitians in Prospect Heights, Brooklyn.

Immigrants in those neighborhoods described President Clinton’s years in the White House as a peaceful, prosperous time for America, and they felt that a vote for Mrs. Clinton would recapture some of that.

“I don’t know Obama,” said Mohammed Ali, 57, a fire safety director who lives in South Richmond Hill, Queens, and is casting his ballot for the first time this week after becoming a citizen in 2005. He is originally from Ogle, Guyana. “I know Bill Clinton. I came to this country when he was president, and I know what he has done. For that reason I give Hillary a nod over Obama.”

Achala Tejpaul, who is from Mumbai, India, runs a jewelry store with her husband on 74th Street in Jackson Heights. She is considering voting for Mrs. Clinton, whom she affectionately described as a “back seater” in her husband’s administration. “She knows what to say and what to do,” Mrs. Tejpaul said. “It’s nothing new for her. She’s been there.”

Mrs. Tejpaul’s store, Global Jewelers, is a short walk from Roti Boti Shaheen, a Pakistani, Indian and Bangladeshi restaurant that has a blue “Hillary” campaign poster taped to the window.

In nearby Woodside, four Colombian immigrants, including Ms. Granada and Mr. Escobar, gathered one recent evening at the offices of Make the Road New York, a nonprofit community services group. All four had taken citizenship classes there, and all four — including 83-year-old Matilde Ospina — plan on backing Mrs. Clinton when they vote for the first time in the New York primary.

But Mrs. Clinton does not have a lock on immigrant voters. Nash Khan, 51, a friend of Mr. Ali’s and a day laborer from Georgetown, Guyana, is casting his ballot — his first — for Mr. Obama, who he felt would bring a new energy to the White House. “I just see him as a young guy,” Mr. Khan said. “He’s new. Even though he may not have the years of experience, he still has a good agenda he’s working with.”

Among the immigrants interviewed, the slowing economy seemed their main concern, and several of them mentioned their fears of a recession more often than they mentioned the debate over immigration.


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