Immigrant students eager to vote after living under oppressive regimes
"It took 144 years for women to gain the right to vote in the United States. It took 94 years for African Americans to win the right to vote and another 94 years to vote without restrictions being put on the right. You only had to turn 18. Vote in the next election."
Advertisements like this one by the Youth Vote Coalition are part of a national campaign to increase voter turnout among 18- to 25-year-olds in this year's midterm elections. At Blair, however, many students are eager to vote, especially those from non-democratic countries.
According to a Silver Chips survey of 120 seniors conducted on Oct 14, 11 percent are immigrants from non-democratic countries. Among the immigrant students, 62 percent plan to vote in the November elections or when they first become eligible.
Students who have lived under oppressive regimes usually gain a greater appreciation for voting, says Holly Ruthrauff, Senior Program Officer for Election Processes at the National Democratic Institute, an organization aimed at promoting democracy overseas. "In my experience, immigrants from countries without free elections tend to value the right to vote because they do not have that right in their homeland," Ruthrauff explains.
While many students view voting as a guaranteed right, senior Tuan Pham knows better than to take it for granted. Pham immigrated to the U.S. from Vietnam and recalls life in his homeland as "very hard" under the communist regime. "It's way better over here—more freedom over here, no freedom over there at all," he describes.
Pham has applied for US citizenship, and he looks forward to the right to vote next year. With that right, Pham hopes to elect officials who will address issues important to him, such as immigration policy. He also hopes for reform in Vietnam's system of government, believing strongly that his homeland would be better off under a democracy.
Quyen Nguyen, a friend of Pham and also an immigrant from Vietnam, agrees. Nguyen, whose grandfather and uncle were killed by Vietnamese communists and whose father almost died in jail, enjoys life in the US but remains haunted by memories from her painful past. In a memoir published in Silver International, she writes, "Today God has blessed me to be in the USA to have a better life with my mom always by my side. But when I set my eyes on my father, I remember the way they treated my dad and the other people in Vietnam. Never will I lose those images from my mind."
Nguyen believes enfranchisement for Vietnamese would improve their nation and prevent such tragedies from occurring. "People getting the right to vote will help reform Vietnam," says Nguyen.
Like Pham and Nguyen, junior Sergio Garcia, who immigrated from Cuba, has also lived under a communist government. In his homeland, says Garcia, people have to watch what they say for fear of being punished for speaking out against the government. "The thing I noticed is that in Cuba, you cannot speak freely, even with your friends," he recalls.
While living in Cuba, Garcia cared little about voting because the regional delegates people elected did not have any real power, but his views on voting changed after he came to the US. "I saw voting as a joke in Cuba because the delegates you vote for did not do what the people needed them to do, but voting is more serious in the US because you can really do something," he says.
Senior Eurykah Fon, a Cameroonian, shares similar experiences with oppressive governments. In Cameroon, one of her family members, who was "very vocal" about her beliefs, was imprisoned for speaking out against the government. "The only way to stop her from complaining is to put her in jail," says Fon. The family member later escaped from jail and, with the help of the Capital Area Immigrants Rights (CAIR) coalition, sought asylum in the US.
Even though Cameroon appears to have elections, says Fon, people's votes "do not matter" because the party in power often fixes the elections. She believes having fair elections is a crucial first step toward reform in her homeland. Says Fon, "We would have a much better government in Cameroon if our votes mattered."
Garcia looks forward to voting for the first time next year and choosing leaders who, unlike the delegates in Cuba, will be able to bring about real changes. He is also considering a career as a pundit, helping others better understand the political process. "I plan to analyze politics and then explain it to people," he says.
Fon also eagerly awaits the right to vote, which she feels will give her a greater say in the government's decision-making. "My voting is saying something—that I agree with whoever I am voting for," she asserts. In the mean time, Fon serves as senior class vice president and plans on being more politically active after high school.
Pham, Nguyen, Garcia and Fon all agree that their homelands would benefit greatly from free and fair elections. Garcia also hopes for democratic reforms in Cuba and more freedoms for its people. "I want pretty much the whole Bill of Rights for Cubans," he smiles.
After her experience with oppressive governments, Fon advises her fellow students not to waste the precious right that millions around the world live without. "Coming from where I've come from, where no one had a say and things did not run smoothly, I would encourage everybody—no exception—to vote if they can."
Han Hu. Han Hu, a senior in Blair's Magnet program, is very excited to serve as Managing News Editor on the Silver Chips staff. Aside from Chips, he is also a member of Blair's mock trial team, where he enjoys delivering cases at the county courthouse before … More »