Immigrants, refugees in eastern Iowa navigate their way to the voting booth

Illustration by Marcus Parker
Illustration by Marcus Parker

Shouts and cheers in a mix of French and occasional English rang out on Coe College’s Clark Field in Cedar Rapids last month as soccer players from countries across Africa vied for a goal. The game celebrated the mixture of cultures immigrants bring to eastern Iowa, but the overarching goal was to raise awareness about newcomers’ civil rights.

Citizens from immigrant and refugee communities who hope to vote in the November election can face additional hurdles in getting to the ballot box, including language barriers, lack of familiarity with the voting process, a mistrust of government stemming from experiences in their home countries and discouragement following the negative rhetoric swirling around campaign events.

But the ability to vote and have a say in national, state and local politics is an important part of becoming part of the community, said Ésaïe Toïngar, who came to the United States as a refugee in 1999 from the Republic of Chad.

“When we have a voice in our communities, that voice can help not only immigrants but our community as a whole. It is important that we have the vote to help our voice be heard,” said Toïngar, who is working to help non-native citizens navigate the voting process.

In 2011, Toïngar created Wake Up for Your Rights, the group responsible for that late September soccer tournament and information session. The organization works to help immigrants and refugees navigate the challenges—from culture shock to understanding new laws—they face in their new homes. The group also works to help individuals back in the refugees’ home communities.

“Iowa is our home now, so we need to know how we can meld ourselves into the community. By voting, we elect those who will represent us and include us in the community,” said Kossi Nomagnon, part of one of the two teams playing in the tournament.

Nomagnon, originally from Togo, said many in his community are not aware of their rights or whether or not they are eligible to vote.

Toïngar said Wake Up for Your Rights helps newcomers by sharing the experiences, both good and bad, of those who have already gone through the process of moving to a new country. The event at Coe served to connect immigrants and refugees with the surrounding community and provide information about civic engagement, voting and political activities in the area.

Refugees are individuals who have fled their country of origin due to fear of persecution. Immigrants are considered to have voluntarily left their home country.

For many, the process towards citizenship starts with learning the language, said Anne Dugger, the immigrant and refugee coordinator for the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids. The nonprofit center provides basic education for adults, including English language learning classes and preparation for the U.S. citizenship exam.

During the 2016 fiscal year, the center had over 400 students from 49 different countries. Most of those students, 97 percent, were mainly interested in English language classes, according to data Dugger provided. Sixteen students became citizens.

She said that over the past few months an increasing number of people have come in to ask about the election and registration process and to figure out their polling place. Although individuals are required to know English to pass the citizenship test, Dugger said many of the websites explaining election processes can be hard to understand for non-native speakers and difficult to access for those without computers.


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Immigrants and refugees may also have had negative experiences with government in the past, which mars their interactions with government officials when they come to the States and can discourage them from voting.

“We come from some countries where our voice was not heard. Only those with power and guns had a voice. Many immigrants don’t believe in voting. Now that they are here they still have that belief,” Toïngar said.

Permanent residents — those with a green card — and other noncitizens cannot vote or register to vote, and doing so can have severe consequences. Voting illegally is considered a felony and it would be up to the county attorney’s office to decide whether or not to proceed with charges, Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said.

He advised anyone who was uncertain about whether or not they were eligible to vote to call or visit the county auditor’s office. For those who are eligible, he said election officials both in the auditor’s office and at polling stations on election day are willing and able to help.

“You should never be afraid to come and vote. They’ll give you the time you need and, if you have any questions, they’ll walk you through the process,” Weipert said.

No state has yet expanded voting for statewide elections to noncitizens. However, two states—Illinois and Maryland—have statutes that allow local jurisdictions to decide if noncitizens are allowed to vote in local elections. Chicago allows noncitizens to vote in local school council elections if an individual has a student enrolled at the school or lives in the attendance area.

Armel Mushekuru, 26, moved to the United States from the Democratic Republic of Congo and started working with Wake Up For Your Rights in 2013. Although he is not a citizen yet, he said he hoped to help others understand their rights.

“I can facilitate people to receive the information to help them understand what the elections are about and the impact the elections might have. They have to know why they should vote,” Mushekuru said.

He said it was important for both citizens and noncitizens in the immigrant and refugee communities to understand how they can participate in their communities and contribute to society in order to feel involved.

Some of the campaign rhetoric hasn’t been particularly encouraging for immigrants and refugees hoping to become citizens or become more involved in their communities.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump has called for a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” said Mexican immigrants are rapists, bringing drugs and crime, and repeatedly references his plan to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Some people, they are scared. Some have had bad experiences in their own countries and the words reminded them of what they went through there,” Toïngar said.

For some, the negative rhetoric has triggered concerns about what the future could hold. Dugger said some people have wanted to kick off the process of applying for citizenship out of concern that if they don’t start now they might face greater challenges in the future. Others have questioned whether they should work so hard to fit into a country that doesn’t seem to want them.

“In many ways they are already discouraged and that rhetoric just hammers it home, making them ask, ‘We’re not wanted here, so why am I trying?’ I see time and again how much the majority of our students really want to be involved and how often they are discouraged,” Dugger said.

Monica Vallejo, who moved to Iowa in 1989 from Ecuador, said once individuals move to the U.S., they become part of the larger immigrant community.
“We don’t support any insults from someone who wants to be president. It is an insult to the entire immigrant community. We are part of the United States whether they like it or not. We pay taxes. We support our community. I can choose who I want to represent me,” Vallejo said.

Toïngar said he believed the negative rhetoric could help spur a conversation about immigration and how to improve both the process of immigration and the treatment of immigrant and refugee communities.

“I see it as positive, helping people ask more questions and through those questions change will come.”

Lauren Shotwell is Little Village’s News Director. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 207.

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