First-time voter mobilizes fellow immigrants for New York primary

In the city, some 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants-turned-US citizens will vote Tuesday.

Rick Maiman/AP
Voter mobilization: Volunteers with Make the Road New York get started on their canvass of Queens, N.Y., urging people to vote. Make the Road New York is a grassroots immigrant activist organization that promotes economic justice, equity, and opportunity for all New Yorkers, according to their mission statement.

Maria Elena Betancur left her native Colombia for the United States 14 years ago wanting a better life for herself and her young daughter. Today she owns a juice bar in Queens, and her daughter is attending college. On Tuesday, she will achieve another milestone.

"I will vote for the first time," said Ms. Betancur, who became a US citizen three years ago. "I came to this country many years ago with my heart in my hands. It makes me very happy to know that I can, for the first time ... represent my own voice."

She's also working to get other immigrants-turned-US citizens to cast their ballots. Concerned with the poor economy, lack of access to affordable healthcare, and immigration-reform legislation, she joined about 30 volunteers, Betancur canvassed her primarily low-income, minority neighborhood reminding registered voters to get out and vote on Tuesday. She's part of a voter-mobilization push by the local branch of Make the Road New York, a Latino immigrant advocacy group.

"We do it because our community needs to build power," said Ana Maria Archila, co-executive director of Make the Road New York.

Almost a third of all New York City voters are foreign born, according to John Mollenkopf, director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York. About 250,000 to 300,000 immigrants will vote on Tuesday, he estimated.

"It's a very interesting election for immigrants in New York City, because Barack Obama is the child of an immigrant and Hillary Clinton has worked on immigrant issues," Professor Mollenkopf said.

Ms. Archila claims that her organization, which was created last year with the merger of the Latin American Integration Center and Make the Road by Walking, has increased voter turnout by 25 percent in the communities where it has been active.

The group has been contacting voters in those communities every day since the first week of January. Its members hope to have knocked on at least 5,000 doors before Tuesday's primary voting.

"We know how hard it is for all of us to make that decision of leaving everything – leaving our country – to come here," said Betancur, who plans to vote for New York Senator Clinton in the Democratic primary. "We need to create the change we are so desperately waiting for."

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