Becoming a part of American democracy
Felipe Blanco poses with his citizenship certificate after passing the exam. (Courtesy of Felipe Blanco)
This story is part of a project called Democracy Day, in which newsrooms across the country are shining a light on threats to democracy.
LINCOLN — Coming to the United States from another country and becoming a citizen can be a long and difficult process, but the journey comes with rewarding benefits of participating in American democracy.
Felipe Blanco, a current Ph.D. candidate at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said he came here from Mexico in “the most privileged way possible.”
Blanco, who is 41, grew up in a family that was big on education. His mother was a university professor, and his father was a public officer for Mexico’s secretary of education.
“We were not rich or anything like that,” Blanco said. “But my parents were more middle class.”
Blanco did not initially see himself immigrating to the U.S. and becoming a citizen. He said he lived a pretty comfortable life and would have been able to pursue a successful career in Mexico. However, that changed when he studied abroad at the University of Texas at Austin for a semester in graduate school for a degree in public administration and policy. That was where he met his wife, Vanessa Martinez.
After graduating, the couple moved to Mexico City. Then, five years later, they decided to move back to the United States to be closer to Martinez’s family in Lincoln.
Dinorah Garcia, a Lincoln radio host who was born and raised in Monterrey, Mexico, said she also had the opportunity to pursue education in her hometown. Garcia described Monterrey as a cosmopolitan city with several universities. Garcia graduated from college with a degree in international relations, and her husband is an engineering graduate.
“We came to the U.S. 15 years ago under tourist visas,” Garcia said. “We then had the opportunity to get work permits.”
Becoming a citizen
Every year, more than 1 million people immigrate to the United States, according to a 2020 Pew Research study. Roughly 800,000 apply for citizenship.
For Garcia, it was a bit of a culture shock working in the United States. Both she and her husband had white-collar jobs in Monterrey, but her first job here was as a cleaner, and her husband worked as a dishwasher.
Blanco and Garcia both expressed appreciation for coming to the United States. However, moments of frustration would arise as they waited for their citizenship applications to process.
Since Blanco was married to a U.S. citizen, he said, his process was relatively quick, even though it took five years. However, there were also moments of “humiliation” that stemmed from proving the legitimacy of his marriage.
How do you prove your love for someone when it is not a tangible thing, he asked. Every time Blanco and his wife would meet with U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services staff, they would have to provide updated documentation to support the legitimacy of their marriage, such as text messages, emails, photographs, bank statements, life insurance policies, retirement accounts, etc.
It took Garcia and her family seven years to be able to apply for U.S. citizenship. She became a citizen in August 2021, and her husband became one two months later. Since Garcia’s daughter was a minor, she assumed her mother’s citizenship status, but Garcia’s son was older, so he had to take the test on his own.
“He was very emotional after he passed the test,” Garcia said.
Garcia said her son always performed well in school and is now studying engineering at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Becoming a citizen meant he could finally qualify for scholarships for which he was initially ineligible.
On Jan. 5, 2021, Blanco passed the oral citizenship exam. On such occasions, new citizens typically take part in a small ceremony, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and receiving an envelope with a small American flag and a letter from the president.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, it was just Blanco and a Citizenship and Immigration Services officer at the ceremony, but he said he felt happy and at ease.
“It is like running a marathon, and you finally make it to the end,” Blanco said. “You’re finally formally allowed to be part of this community.”
The very next day, the attack on the U.S. Capitol happened. Blanco said he was in complete disbelief at what happened.
“I’m happy to be a U.S. citizen, and I understand there are many people that don’t even have that chance,” Blanco said. “At the same time (we need to) acknowledge that this country has a lot to do to do better for some of us.”
A Poynter.org study highlighted how divided the United States was, and remains, after the 2020 election cycle.
Voting for the first time
The right to vote has evolved over time, beginning in 1828, the first year non-property-holding white males could vote in a presidential election. Congress guaranteed women the right to vote on Aug. 18, 1920, by ratifying the 19th Amendment. Congress changed the minimum age to vote from 21 to 18 by ratifying the 26th Amendment on July 1, 1971.
The first time Garcia could vote after becoming a U.S. citizen was in Nebraska’s May 10 primary election this year. She researched all the candidates to see who aligned best with her ideas, values and beliefs.
With her list of her chosen candidates in hand, Garcia and her husband walked into Lincoln Southwest High School to vote during his lunch break. Garcia said she felt like she was able to help give a voice to the voiceless by casting her ballot that day.
“I was so excited,” Garcia said. “But the only thing I wish I saw was more young voters that day.”
Blanco voted for the first time in 2021, during Lincoln’s April 6 primary election at the College View precinct.
“I went with my wife, and we asked if we could take pictures since it was my first time voting,” Blanco said. “The volunteers all clapped for me and thanked me for coming to vote, so it was very nice.”
Moving forward, Garcia said she feels more educated on issues and sees younger generations becoming more knowledgeable and motivated to vote.
“I am hopeful,” Garcia said.
Blanco expressed concern about where American democracy is going and the work it needs to do to improve.
“Some people believe that part of being an American is believing that this is an exceptional country and has no flaws,” Blanco said. “In my view, criticizing your country is not bad if you’re doing it in good faith to try to make it a better place for everyone.”
GET THE MORNING HEADLINES DELIVERED TO YOUR INBOX
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site.