Immigrant voters feel weight of responsibility at ballot box

Mariela Delgado watched from behind a bar counter as Barack Obama made history in 2008 by becoming the first African American to win the White House.

The restaurant worker was able to debate politics with patrons but couldn't yet vote. This time around, she hopes to stand at the center of history by helping elect the nation's first female president.

"I became a U.S. citizen about a year and a half ago," said the Apopka resident who was born in Mexico. "I feel excited because this is the first time I'm going to vote and decide for my own interests and what I consider is good for my people."

As a new citizen, Delgado has joined the expanding ranks of Floridians whose voice in American elections didn't come as a birthright. In the past year alone, the number of newly naturalized citizens has shot up 54 percent across the state, according to the Florida Immigrant Coalition.

From 2010 to 2015, the number of naturalized citizens in the Orlando metro area climbed by about 28 percent to reach more than 217,000, according to census estimates.

As Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton duke it out for Florida's 29 electoral votes, many immigrants are feeling the weight of responsibility that comes attached to American citizenship.

In the primaries, Delgado, 42, was drawn to Democrat Bernie Sanders, whose populist appeal reminded her of candidates from Latin-American politics.

Though she wasn't as enthusiastic about Clinton, she's throwing her support behind the Democrat because she can't stomach Trump. Delgado said the anti-immigrant sentiment that has pervaded the GOP candidate's campaign has shocked her.

"He's dividing this country," she said. "Even if Hillary wins, the damage is already done."

'Everything was good'

Anna Tran has fond memories of the America that greeted her when she moved from Vietnam in 1985.

"When I come here, everything was good," the Orlando nail salon owner said. "Everything was cheap."

Low prices were a boon to Tran as she worked days and nights in hotel housekeeping, tidying rooms, doing laundry and cleaning lobbies for $4.75 an hour.

At that time, gas cost less than a dollar a gallon. She could feed her family for a week on a $50 trip to the grocery store.

These days, the same shopping cart might run $200 to $300.

Tran, 67, said she thinks America needs to recover lost ground and that Trump's business acumen might put the nation back on track. She said she isn't turned off by the controversies that have dogged his candidacy.

"Some people talk like Trump crazy," she said. "He'll make the country go up, and that's all I care about."

'This has been my life'

Luckner Millien has been hitting political rallies for decades since fleeing political oppression in Haiti.

"Oh my God, this has been my life. Ever since I have been here," he said this week, waving a sign exhorting U.S. Highway 441 travelers to take advantage of early voting.

His older brother was among those arbitrarily arrested under the brutal regime of Jean-Claude Duvalier, who ascended to power in 1971. Luckner said his brother vanished without warning, and his family learned he later died in jail.

Luckner, 67, considers himself a human-rights activist. A staffer at the Farmworker Association of Florida in Apopka, he is a passionate advocate for immigrant communities.

He said he left Haiti in 1978 and gained his citizenship in time to weigh in on the 1992 election won by Bill Clinton. This year, Luckner is throwing his support behind the former first lady.

'Cash it at the bank'

In the monarchy of Saudi Arabia, the nation where Atif Fareed was born, the king gets what the king wants.

So Fareed, 55, said he never forgets the value of voting.

"In the U.S. we are so blessed that if we don't like the governor or congressman or president, we as citizens can collectively remove them from office. That is a great privilege."

The Winter Springs resident said he has worked to encourage Muslims in his community to vote and will volunteer as a poll worker on Election Day.

Though he was born in the Middle East, Fareed's family is from India. He moved with his parents to the U.S. when he was 18 in search of opportunity and found it as an airline pilot.

Fareed, chairman for the Longwood-based American Muslim Community Centers, said he holds conservative values and has found the GOP nominee's remarks off-putting and lacking in substantive value.

"Bluster is one thing. It's entertaining, but I cannot cash it at the bank," Fareed said.

Source: Bethany Rodgers, Orlando Sentinel