Can I Vote as a Refugee?
Refugees who become American citizens can exercise one of the most fundamental rights of our representative democracy: the right to vote. Nhi Aronheim explains how the process works for new American citizens who undertake this journey.
From New Refugee to Citizen Voter
Refugees are people who are forced to flee their countries in order to escape great harm. They have been persecuted or fear persecution on account of their race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.
People who seek entry to the United States and are granted refugee status will have permanent permission to live here. Adults can work immediately upon their arrival. After one year they must apply for lawful permanent resident status (a green card). After five years, they can apply to become a naturalized American citizen, with all the rights that citizenship confers.
As an individual who enters the United States with refugee status, will you eventually be eligible to vote? Yes, you may be eligible to vote once you become an American citizen.
Meet Nhi Aronheim - Her journey to the ballot box started in Vietnam
TEDx Speaker, Mediator and Author Nhi Aronheim survived an arduous journey as an unaccompanied minor from war-torn Vietnam to build a beautiful and successful life as a naturalized American citizen. She currently lives in Colorado. In her discussion with U.S. Vote Foundation (US Vote), Nhi Aronheim shares her astonishing story and indomitable spirit to inspire and empower refugees who become American citizens to navigate how to vote in our nation.
Nhi, you were only twelve years old when you escaped on foot with strangers through Cambodian jungles. You had only two articles of clothing in your possession.
At that tender age, were you aware of how courageous and formidable you would need to be to survive, let alone realize your dream of coming to the United States? What was your state of mind when you left Vietnam, and how do you now look back on twelve-year-old Nhi?
At the age of twelve, I’d never been separated from my family. I did not know what life looked like in other countries at that time because I only knew Vietnam. But in my heart, I believed that there must be a safer and better place.
I got so tired of living in an environment where I had to lie and cheat just for survival, only to have the government show up whenever they felt like it and take everything we had worked for. Life did not have to be like this.
So I decided to take my mother’s offer for me to escape Vietnam alone. I did not know if I would be able to make it completely on my own. But I had to try and take the risks.
When I left Vietnam, sadness engulfed me. I did not know if I would live, die, or ever see my mother again.
Looking back on the twelve-year-old Nhi, I still cannot believe the horrors I encountered during my escape as a refugee in order to achieve the American Dream.
You made it to an orphanage in Thailand where an application was processed for you to have refugee status in the United States. What do you recall about that ordeal?
I lived in the Minors’ Center in the refugee camp for two years prior to receiving refugee status in the United States.
While waiting in the camp, I felt hopeless, sad, and homesick. The unknown of if/when I would receive refugee status caused me regular anxiety and hopelessness.
When you settled in Kentucky after enduring such daunting experiences, you began to adjust to a new life. Can you describe your transition to living in the U.S.?
I was in for a surprise when we arrived at my new home in Kentucky to live with my older sister and her in-law.
I resettled in a home with three small bedrooms and one bathroom for eleven people. Regardless of being considered as poor or low income people, I was shocked to see the fully stocked fridge in their home.
With my previous encounters with starvation, I was amazed with the abundance in the U.S., especially at the grocery stores. There was aisle after aisle flush with food.
I also thought it was incredible that the government and its police force could not just enter citizens’ homes whenever they wanted to accuse someone of certain crimes.
I finally felt what freedom was about. The journey to reach freedom and the acclimation in my host country were quite challenging, but it was worth taking the risks.
When you were adopted and became a naturalized citizen, what did it feel like to be a new American?
In order to become a naturalized U.S. citizen, a person must be a permanent U.S. resident for at least five years and meet all other eligibility requirements for citizenship.
After my long and arduous journey to find freedom, becoming a naturalized citizen granted me my own voice by allowing me to vote for what I’ve wanted. So I don’t ever take that right for granted.
You were valedictorian of your class in high school. What were your key takeaways from your U.S. History and Civics classes as you became acclimated to American political culture and learned how to vote?
The best thing I’ve seen in the American political structure is the check and balance among the three branches of government: Legislative (Congress makes the laws), Executive Branch (President and Vice President enforce the laws), and Judicial (the Supreme Court interprets laws).
As naturalized citizens, we are granted the right to vote for candidates and issues that we are passionate about, and make an impact on all three branches.
Do you recall the first time you went to register to vote and actually cast your ballot? What does suffrage mean to you at this point in your life?
Unlike many non-democratic countries, I believe that it is a privilege for U.S. citizens to have the right to vote, and I took my right seriously by exercising it.
If you don’t vote, then don’t complain about what you don’t like in your country.
There were times when I voted for certain issues, and later realized that the reality did not turn out as I envisioned. Since I voted for it, like it or not, I should be ok with the consequences, regardless of whether I agreed with it after.
You have options in Colorado: you are able to vote in person during early voting periods or on Election Day. You may alternatively vote with an absentee ballot or by mail.
I prefer to vote by mail so that I would have plenty of time to do my research. I also make it a family voting discussion, where my family would discuss certain issues together in a respectful manner, without trying to persuade the others to vote their ways.
In your TEDx Talk, you share three ways to help resettled refugees acculturate to our nation, and you reference how much you learned about humanity through your own journey.
What message would you want to convey to refugees about becoming U.S. citizens and exercising the right to vote?
As refugees, when you become naturalized citizens and want to exercise your right to vote, don’t let the language barrier prevent you from voting. The process can be overwhelming when you don’t know how to get to the voting location, or how to interpret certain voting issues. There are available organizations and volunteers that can help you understand the issues in the voting ballot. Just reach out to your community and ask for help.
Newly naturalized citizens can certainly benefit from setting up a US Vote Voter Account. Voter Accounts work as a voter valet to walk citizens through all the steps and ways of casting a ballot. As a trusted source of information, US Vote will make voting easy and understandable for new Americans.