Local Election

They’re immigrants, citizens and voters — and they’re not thrilled with their choices for president

Like many U.S. citizens, Felix Guzman, 61, is troubled by the acrimony of presidential campaign. “I’ve never seen an election like this one,” said the owner of Reyna’s Mexican Restaurant in Parkland. “I’m feeling real bad.”
Like many U.S. citizens, Felix Guzman, 61, is troubled by the acrimony of presidential campaign. “I’ve never seen an election like this one,” said the owner of Reyna’s Mexican Restaurant in Parkland. “I’m feeling real bad.” dperine@thenewstribune.com

They are Americans, every one — immigrants and legal citizens of the United States — and they vote.

Much of the political heat in the presidential election surrounds individuals who enter the country illegally, and Republican candidate Donald Trump’s vow to build a wall at the nation’s southern border.

Lost in that rhetorical torrent are those who jump through legal hoops, take and pass citizenship tests and attain legal status, often after years of work and waiting.

Foreign-born citizens aren’t likely to tip the electoral scales in Washington state, where they represent about 9 percent of registered voters, according to research by Thomas Holbrook, a professor of government at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

Holbrook has written about the effects of legal immigrant voting patterns on the 2016 election, in a story for The Washington Post, and more expansively in the book “Altered States.”

His research suggests that legal immigrant voters have tilted gradually to the Democratic side since 1972. By the 2000s, Holbrook writes, the nation’s foreign-born voting population consisted mostly of legal immigrants from Latin America (39 percent) and Asia (37 percent).

The partisan factor matters more in hotly contested states with higher percentages of foreign-born voters, less in states that historically favor one party in presidential elections.

“They’ll be more pivotal in swing states than they will in states that are already solidly Democratic or Republican,” Holbrook wrote.

The News Tribune recently interviewed a local group of foreign-born citizens. Some appeared in past news stories covering citizenship ceremonies. Others were the focus of stories about their lives and accomplishments.

They come from around the globe: India, Korea, Afghanistan, Uganda and Mexico, among other places. Most are dismayed by the tone of the campaign.

“I’ve never seen an election like this one,” says Felix Guzman, 61, owner of Reyna’s Mexican Restaurant in Parkland. “I’m feeling real bad.”

Guzman still recalls the day 22 years ago when he finally attained legal citizenship, ensuring his family’s security and a chance to work in his adopted nation. The memory overwhelms him; for a moment, he can’t speak.

“My children,” he says finally. “My children.”

Guzman is voting for Democrat Hillary Clinton. He has no use for Trump.

“He’s insulting everybody — even white people, American people, he’s insulting to them,” he says. “Like today the gas company and electrician call me, you know. (Trump) doesn’t pay the taxes. I pay my taxes, you know. I pay my bills.”

Bether Mbichire, 46, gained her legal citizenship in September, after a decade of effort and passing the citizenship test. Originally from Kenya, she’s a Spanaway resident and a nurse at Tacoma General Hospital.

With less than two weeks to go before the election, she says she’s still undecided.

“It’s kind of difficult, because none of them has really convinced me to believe that what they’re saying is what they’re gonna do,” she says. “I feel like it’s empty words for now, for them to get through. Definitely I’m gonna vote. It’s only that I don’t know who to vote for.”

Mbichire thinks of Trump as a businessman, not a politician. She knows him from his TV appearances. Her sense of Clinton is clearer.

“I’ve known her to be in politics for the longest time,” she says. “It’s easy to understand where she’s coming from, but I haven’t seen that much that she has done in the past.”

With respect to immigration, Mbichire has mixed feelings. She wouldn’t necessarily support deporting those who stay here without “papers,” as she puts it, if they are working and paying taxes, and not committing crimes.

But she also believes those who want to become citizens should go the legal route, just as she did — it’s unfair not to, in her view.

“I think everybody should play by the rules, no matter how hard it is,” she says. “It took me almost 10 years.”

Yunus Peshtaz, 61, came to Puyallup High School in 1974 as a foreign exchange student. In 1979, he and his family fled their native country for good when the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Peshtaz settled in Puyallup, raised his family and attained citizenship in 1984.

Since then, he has helped 37 family members fleeing Taliban extremists become American citizens, a task that became his life’s work.

The current presidential campaign disturbs Peshtaz, who says he hasn’t seen “such a bizarre situation as this” in the years he’s been living in America. He intends to vote for Clinton, and he blames Trump for divisive rhetoric.

“He has divided the country with his hate toward Mexicans, Muslims, women, disabled, media,” Peshtaz says. “You name it, he has worked against them.”

Victoria Mukisa, 19, gained her citizenship last month, not long after graduating from Lincoln High School, where she started at guard on the women’s basketball team. Originally from Uganda, she is working on her associate’s degree at Pierce College.

She plans to vote for Clinton, she says.

“As a young woman voter, she’s helping empower women,” Mukisa says. “Not only black women, but everybody, from different cultures. She just wants to see women get the equality that they deserve in society.”

Mukisa calls Trump’s message to immigrants negative and insulting, but also thinks those who skirt the legal rules are cheating themselves.

“I mean, who would come to a country like this that has so many opportunities and not want to become a citizen,” she says. “It’s kind of stupid. I went through it. There’s access for you to become a citizen. Do it for yourself and do it for the people you’ve left behind.”

Mo Aliabadi, 57, knows something about work. The president of South Tacoma Auto Sales came to America from Iran as a young man, aided by his father, who wanted his children to escape the hard-line regime of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Aliabadi washed dishes, sold insurance, pumped gas, fixed cars and attended junior college in East Texas along the way to attaining citizenship, eventually starting his own business.

In 2011,the University of Washington named him small-business leader of the year, an honor underlined by peers familiar with his charitable work and sterling reputation.

Surveying the election landscape, Aliabadi says he’s disappointed with the choices.

“In some ways it’s good to see democracy at work,” he says. “That’s positive, but I’m disappointed with the choices that we have. I kind of feel worried about the option of Donald Trump, me being a minority and an immigrant, if he does get into power and what that means for us.”

When it comes to Clinton, Aliabadi can’t say he’s enthused.

“My feelings are sort of neutral,” he says. “I don’t think she’s gonna do a whole heck of a lot. I don’t think she’s gonna rock the world, but I don’t think she’s gonna take it in the wrong direction either.”

Simranpreet Lamba, 32, gained his citizenship in 2013, cheered by his fellow soldiers and commanders at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, where he was a medic in the 3rd Squadron, 38th Cavalry Regiment and rose to the level of corporal — the first Sikh to attain the rank in 30 years.

Lamba, originally from India, works as a business and economic development analyst for the Port of Seattle. He and his wife live in University Place.

He says his willingness to serve his adopted country underscores the values he believes America represents.

“It shows the commitment to the country, to believe in the country and the commitment we have to the country,” he says. “Everybody, immigrants, anyone from different parts of the world have worked to build this country. We are a world power because diversity makes us stronger, not because it makes us weaker.”

Lamba won’t vote for Trump. He believes the candidate’s rhetoric is “totally opposite to what we stand for, what the U.S stands for.”

Instead, he plans to cast a ballot for Clinton.

“She’s doing great work, she’s talking about great things she wants to do for the immigrants,” he says. “I know politicians say things when they’re running, during the campaign, and do things differently later on. It will be interesting to see whether she will deliver what she’s promising.”

It’s been 45 years since Patsy Suhr O’Connell, 73, attained her citizenship. She lived in New Jersey then, after coming to America from South Korea in 1963 as a student. She remembers having to renew her visa each year.

After she met and married her husband, who was in the military, visa renewal was no longer necessary — but O’Connell wanted formal citizenship, anyway. Eventually, she and her husband moved to Tacoma, where she founded the city’s Asian-Pacific Cultural Center in 1996, after the death of her father.

“He was always an ahead-of-his-time thinker, and very civic-minded,” she says.

O’Connell has seen many presidential elections. This year, she confesses she’s undecided.

“I am very mixed,” she says. “I want somebody with integrity and able to represent all of us to the world as the great country we are. I have not decided yet.”

She has been a keynote speaker at local citizenship ceremonies. Having cleared the legal hurdles herself, O’Connell believes it’s the proper route for those who want to become citizens.

“It’s not because I am already American and I don’t want any other immigrants to come,” she says. “I just think there should be rules and regulations. I think it’s a great idea to have those immigrants go through the process of becoming Americans in this great country.”