LAS VEGAS, NV — Samson Edea and his wife came to the United States from Ethiopia in 2005 as refugees. Today, they will participate for the first time in an election as newly-minted U.S. citizens. They are two of the thousands of new Americans set to have a major impact in the crucial swing state of Nevada, both in this week’s primary caucuses and in the general election in November.
“This is my country. I want to have a voice to elect my leaders,” Edea told ThinkProgress.
Edea, who works as a food server in the Wynn hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, never had the opportunity to vote in Ethiopia, where elections today remain marred by corruption, intimidation, and violence. Today, he plans to caucus for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who won him over with proposals to make public college tuition-free, raise taxes on the wealthy, and implement universal, single-payer health care.
“He offers more for the middle class, for the working class, for us,” he said. “And when he speaks, he is talking from his heart.”
Edea started the process of becoming a citizen more than two years ago, but had his case delayed for over a year due to an error in the federal government’s vast bureaucracy. His union, the Culinary Workers Local 226, helped him navigate the process, study for the citizenship test, and prepare for his in-person interview. As he waited, he volunteered on Senator Harry Reid’s and President Barack Obama’s re-election campaigns, and helped register his fellow workers who could legally cast ballots.
“All that time, I had the right to work, to buy a house, to pay taxes, but I was missing having that voice in politics,” he said. “I’ve wanted that from day one. Finally, my wife and I got it. Now we are both so excited to make our first votes.”
The Culinary Workers has helped more than 11,000 of its workers become U.S. citizens and register to vote since 2011, and has set the ambitious goal of adding 2,500 more to that list before November’s general election. The powerful Las Vegas union, whose members hail from more than 150 different countries, decided this year to focus on these citizenship and voter registration campaigns instead of backing a Democratic candidate.
“We’ve remained neutral, and focused instead on building our internal strength and power,” said Bethany Khan, the spokeswoman for Local 226. “So when we eventually do have a candidate that we’re ready to endorse, we’ll be in a place to deliver Nevada for someone we believe will represent the best interest of workers and their families.”
The citizenship and voter registration push aims to combat Nevada’s notoriously low voter turnout. Fewer than 10 percent of eligible voters showed up to caucus in 2012, and the state has regularly had one of the lowest rates of both turnout and registration, despite the fact that the state allows voters to register the same day they vote.
For those like Edea, who struggled for years to become a citizen, this lack of engagement is baffling.
“It’s a great privilege,” he said. “Everyone who is a citizen needs to use it. You don’t get this power in other countries.”
Citing Nevada’s low participation levels, some speculate that party leaders will strip the state of its first-in-the-west primary and bestow the honor on nearby Colorado.
But among Nevada’s newest citizens, especially recently naturalized Latinos, the motivation to vote is stronger than ever thanks in part to a spike in anti-immigrant rhetoric from frontrunner Donald Trump and other Republican candidates.
“Their hateful comments are just ensuring that we go out to vote,” said Jose Macias, whose family hails from Mexico. “Latinos are listening. When it comes to elections, we’re going to make sure our voice is counted. Not just on immigration, but on climate change, the minimum wage, and other issues, if you’re not backing us up, we’re not going to back you up.”
Febe Rodriguez, a housekeeper at the Bellagio hotel on the Las Vegas Strip, agreed, saying she is especially eager to vote for the first time this year.
“We’ve been hearing the politicians say, ‘These people need to go back to where they came from,’ but for most of us, coming here wasn’t a choice,” she told ThinkProgress. “So I really want the Democratic Party to win again, despite all their mistakes. They will support the young people achieving their dreams, and the immigrants.”
For months, groups like Voto Latino, Mi Familia Vota, iAmerica, and the Latino Victory Project have been working overtime to register as many Latino voters like Rodriguez as possible, and help those who are eligible begin the long journey to citizenship. A Pew study in 2013 found that there are more than 3 million immigrants from Mexico alone who are qualified to become citizens but have not yet done so. Nearly a quarter cited difficulty learning English as the main obstacle to becoming an American, while nearly a fifth cited the cost of the paperwork, which nears $700.
Rodriguez said she has struggled with both hurdles.
“When I first moved here in 2001, I didn’t speak nothing of the English,” said Rodriguez, who grew up in the Mexican border town Cuidad Juarez, working in maquilas, or sweatshops. “I was afraid to go anywhere, because I heard it was ‘Sin City,’ and I’m very Christian. But I’ve dreamed of being a U.S. citizen since I was like 10 years old, so I worked very hard to learn. Then every year there was a different expense for my three kids, so I couldn’t pay the $680 for my papers. But this year I can finally be a citizen and have the right to vote.”
Rodriguez will not be able to caucus today, but says her citizenship will be fully processed and approved before November’s general election. She is paying close attention to the primary — even attending Thursday’s MSNBC town hall — and says she’s been inspired by Hillary Clinton: “I love that she says, ‘We are women but we deserve equal payment.'”
Like the entire U.S. population, the Nevada electorate is becoming younger and more diverse each year. As residents like Edea and Rodriguez earn their citizenship, hundreds of thousands of Nevadans are turning 18 — most of them people of color. These trends will not only favor Democrats, but will favor the party’s more radical candidates.
With Nevada set to become the next majority-minority state, it remains to be seen whether any campaigns that appeal to anti-immigrant and xenophobic sentiment can succeed.