This election season The Seattle Globalist is featuring the stories of first-time U.S. voters, asking them why this year has inspired them to register to vote.
Haydee Lavariega grew up in what she called an apolitical family in Oaxaca, Mexico.
But now, as a recently naturalized U.S. citizen — grateful for her long path to residency and citizenship — she said that not voting is unthinkable for her.
Lavariega will be voting this November for the first time in her life. Lavariega said that she felt it was her duty to vote this year despite the flaws of both Democratic and Republican candidates because she’s not only voting for herself, but also for her friends.
“I have a lot of friends who are undocumented who have a very strong voice and they make positive changes for our community,” she said.
She and others in her community lobbied for laws such as the Washington REAL Hope Act, which allows undocumented college students to apply for loans and grants through the Washington Application for State Financial Aid (WAFSA).
“And I was thinking of the power of moms that were able to change things for WAFSA to happen,” Lavariega said. “So I think there’s a lot of voice in the community. What a lot of times happen is because of the system and people who are activists, if they’re undocumented aren’t able to vote so I feel like I have this responsibility to vote.”
When she worked at Casa Latina, she said she spoke a lot about having a voice and a vote. Because many in her community do not have the privilege of the latter, she feels it is all the more symbolic for her to cast her ballot.
She had one advice for Americans, especially the youth, who are unsure if they should vote this year: “Even if it’s just a civic exercise, an exercise of your citizenship, an exercise of your privilege, then go and vote. Around the world, things have gone in the wrong direction because people haven’t gone out and voted. In Colombia, for example, or Brexit.”
Lavariega has spent a lot of time and money for her U.S. citizenship.
She came to the U.S. 13 years ago as a fresh college graduate from Mexico. She received a Fulbright scholarship to teach English as Second Language (ESL) and was placed in Gardner-Webb University in North Carolina. She was then on a J-1 visa, one commonly used for educational exchange programs. After a year of teaching, she decided to go to graduate school with a goal to be a Spanish teacher. She then went on a F-1 student visa and received her master’s in Spanish from the University of South Carolina.
“I love teaching and the reality is when I look back I see that teaching Spanish was kind of my ticket to be able to stay in the States,” said Lavariega.
She then got a H-1B specialty worker’s visa sponsored by a community college in North Carolina. Around the same time, she married a U.S. citizen and shortly after was able to gain residency and a permanent green card. She and her then-husband went through this process all by themselves, without help of a lawyer.
It was emotionally taxing, she said.
“And I’ve seen my friends who are also residents — there’s a moment when you put in all of your paperwork together and all of us have stories of crying. This was so intense. I had to work and go on with my life but also I had to sit down and figure out which picture to send to make people believe [the marriage] was true, which it was. And I had to document every single thing,” said Lavariega.
When she attended her citizenship ceremony this year in May, she had conflicting emotions.
“I know that there’s not a lot of paths for citizenship for people to go. There’s a huge community of undocumented immigrants who are not given the opportunity to even one day be a resident and one day be a citizen. So knowing that there’s so many people who don’t have these opportunities it’s really hard. … I have friends who are undocumented and to know that I pretty much got a lottery ticket that nobody else can get. It was very heavy,” she said.