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Rafa Lombardino is a Californian who works as a translator and podcast host. She was born in Brazil but was content to reside in the U.S. with a green card, being able to do almost everything a citizen could do—except vote. Then, a few months back, she went through a drive-thru naturalization ceremony, registered to vote, and cast her ballot. Newly naturalized citizens like Lombardino are one of the fastest-growing groups of voters in the country: Since 2000, the size of the immigrant electorate has nearly doubled. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, for our series about first-time voters and what’s inspiring them, I spoke with Lombardino about what drove her to finally apply for citizenship and vote. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Mary Harris: You had a number of reasons you felt like you needed to nail down your citizenship in the lead-up to this election.
Rafa Lombardino: In 2015, I saw this lady, I believe from Mexico, with her son or her grandson. I think it was the first time she was renewing her green card with biometrics. She needed to get a fingerprint and picture, and she didn’t understand what was going on.
Biometrics is new, right?
It’s new. I didn’t do that 10 years ago when I got my first green card. She was getting upset, and she thought she was going to be booked and sent back to Mexico. I saw her family trying to explain it to her. Just having that image was something that compelled me to say: “I better get on the ball with this. Not becoming a citizen is not affecting anything in my life right now, but when I’m older, if my kids have to deal with me and take me to the Social Security Administration and have everything done, it’s not something I want to put on them.” Then there was first ban for people traveling in and out of the country—that really sent some shock waves, especially through my Brazilian friends all over the United States. We all were on high alert: Could that happen to us?
You feared leaving the country.
Exactly. We had issues in the beginning before I had my green card. It was a new visa that they had back in 2002 when we got married: a K-3 visa for fiancés and wives or husbands of American citizens. I remember trying to come back to San Diego from an international trip and realizing that too many people could interfere with my coming and going.
You wanted to cut the red tape.
Exactly. If I can minimize any problems that I can have from now and still be with my husband and kids. That’s what my main priority was.
You voted for the first time in the United States earlier this month. You’re a Biden supporter, but not exactly an excited Biden supporter.
He was not my first choice. Definitely one of the things that motivated me to become a citizen and vote in this election was I really wanted to vote for Elizabeth Warren. Well, that didn’t happen, I was really glad that Kamala Harris was chosen as VP because she was my second option. And Biden is a politician that has empathy. It was not a tough choice for me at all.
You’re also at this moment where you’ve committed to an American identity and at the same time you’re very troubled by what’s happening here. Do you think about that contradiction at all?
All the time, for sure. It’s not an identity that I have as crystal clear right now. I just knew it was a step that I had to take to participate. People who see me here, they may have this idea that, oh, she’s an immigrant, she came here for a better life because the United States is a “first world” country, and she came from the slums in Brazil—which was definitely not the case. You’re caught between two worlds and nobody perceives you for who you are unless they’re really close friends and keep tabs on you all the time.
You have to swear an oath of allegiance when you become a citizen. I was thinking, that might feel especially hard to do at this moment for lots of people, even American citizens.
I have so many immigrant American friends, students, colleagues that I care about. And I want the best for them. I am in a very privileged position of how I could afford to become a citizen. I can read the paperwork myself. I just keep thinking about all those people that cannot vote, or that have no funds to become a citizen, or who need extra help to go through the immigration process and navigate all the paperwork you have to sort through. So I feel like I’m voting for them as well—for those people that will not have a voice because they’re not citizens.