NEW YORK: In a packed federal courtroom in Brooklyn on Friday, it was one-stop shopping for 262 New Yorkers: They became American citizens and registered to vote — all from their seats and just before the deadline.
“Today is the last day you can register to vote in New York,” Magistrate Judge Vera M. Scanlon told the new citizens from 55 countries immediately after they recited the Naturalisation Oath of Allegiance to the United States. “That is one of the special privileges you have that you didn’t have three minutes ago.”
Voter registration forms were distributed inside the courtroom, and Scanlon promptly directed the people to mail them at the post office next door. But Fryda Guedes, a staff member from the advocacy group Hispanic Federation, made it even easier. Guedes went through the aisles and collected the forms, saying she would hand-deliver them to the Board of Elections.
That made Beverly Greig’s day. A native of Guyana and a 30-year Queens resident, Greig, 67, wondered for weeks whether she would have enough time to register.
“I was asking everybody: ‘Can I vote, can I vote? I have to vote,’” Greig said. Thrilled, she handed her form to Guedes.
In three ceremonies in New York City on Friday, 685 people became American citizens, the latest in a national wave preceding the presidential election.
For many, the campaign of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump was motivation. Humera Qayyum, 25, a medical assistant from Coney Island by way of Pakistan, said she had experienced discrimination as a Muslim wearing a hijab, and was displeased with Trump’s call to bar Muslims from the United States.
“I want to vote Democratic because they have respect for all religions, respect for everything,” Qayyum said. She added: “I have been here for five years. I worked really hard to be in this country and I don’t want to get kicked out.”
A Muslim student from Bangladesh, Nazmus Sakib Choudhury, 25, said he was afraid of a Trump presidency and intended to vote Democratic. “We don’t have an option,” he said.
Not everybody agreed. An older man from Canada, who did not want to give his name, said he wanted to use his citizenship to vote for Trump.
Maria Ester Lopez, 34, a Bronx resident from Mexico, said she felt both lucky and blessed to get her citizenship on the last day to register to vote by mail.
“It’s kind of a miracle,” she said. “Just in time.”
But not everybody made it.
In line with a national trend, applications for citizenship rose over the last 12 months in the New York metropolitan area, which includes New York City and Long Island, with 110,895 people trying to become citizens, compared with 88,627 over the previous 12-month period, according to the federal Citizenship and Immigration Services. And applicants faced significant waits. As of June 30, 72,595 applications were pending. (By comparison, 52,953 applications were pending at the same point the previous year.)
The federal Citizenship and Immigration Services, which processes the applications, denied that those numbers represented delays. “We are monitoring the situation and managing resources to address disparities in processing times,” Katie Tichacek, a spokeswoman for the agency, said.
But the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights, which helped prepare 600 applications for citizenship over the past year, has noticed a substantial lag time in processing in 2016, which has resulted in some people not being naturalised in time to vote, Angela Fernandez, the group’s executive director, said. It took only three months to process applications in New York at this time last year, but now took longer than five months, she said.
“My understanding was that because of the election, things would be moving more quickly,” said Sergia Ramos, 68, a client of the coalition who came to the office on Thursday to plead for intervention. She had been waiting five months just to get an interview, she said.
Fernandez said it was too late for this election, and referred Ramos to her local elected officials.
For applicants who have naturalisation ceremonies in New York scheduled up until October 28, there is one little-known last resort: New York state allows them to bring their application in person to a Board of Elections office.
Raymundo Nelio Read Pinedo, a boiler mechanic who lives in the Bronx, was among those who became a citizen with the Northern Manhattan Coalition’s help. At the federal court in Manhattan on Friday, he was dressed for the occasion, wearing a red velvet blazer and bright red loafers. On his briefcase he displayed a small American flag, a gift from his 12-year-old daughter.
Read, 55, moved to the United States from the Dominican Republic in 1988, he said, but had always been so busy with work that he hadn’t made time to apply for citizenship until this year.
He said he planned to celebrate on Friday night by having dinner with his 82-year-old mother, who has been a US citizen for 15 years.
“It means a lot to her,” Read said. “For the first time, a woman has the opportunity to govern this country.”
In Manhattan, workers for Dominicanos USA and the Asian American Legal Defence and Education Fund were handing out registration forms in the federal courthouse hallways and outside the building on Friday.
Inside the courtroom, District Judge Richard J. Sullivan encouraged the 167 new citizens to vote, but spent more time talking to them on a personal level about his children, his Irish ancestry and the significance of the moment.
“I know I’m going to celebrate today,” he said. “I’m going to have an ice cream cone on your behalf. I’ll raise it up like the Statue of Liberty and I’ll think of you.”