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After becoming an American citizen, this Kansas Citian is eager to vote in the 2024 election

A woman stands inside her home near some shelves that display South American-themed dolls, family photos, and Christian collectibles.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Cindy Phillips stands by a shelf filled with family photos and Mexican-themed dolls she brings back to Kearney, Missouri, when she travels back to Mexico. "Its a daily reminder of my heritage for me and my daughter," she said.

One naturalized Kearney resident, originally from Mexico, is ready to make her voice heard in the 2024 election. Nearly 900,000 immigrants and refugees became U.S. citizens in 2023, and the rapidly growing population could impact elections.

Cindy Phillips, originally from Mexico City, became a U.S. citizen in December and registered to vote the very same day. She said systemic corruption in Mexican politics, including the murders of candidates and voters, make it dangerous to participate in democracy there.

“This sounds very stereotypical, But there are cartels taking over the country, and the government is not taking the right measures to control that,” Phillips said.

Escaping that situation is part of why she immigrated to the U.S. almost eight years ago. The other reason was to be with the man who is now her husband. What she’s learned since about the electoral impacts of immigrants like herself makes her feel American democracy is more open and transparent than back in Mexico.

“I've read that younger voters have had a huge impact on the election results," she said. “So in my case, as a millennial, if I vote, I know my vote is going to count.”

Philips, who’s 35, represents a rapidly growing sector of the American electorate: immigrants who are newly naturalized citizens.

A woman stands inside her home near some shelves that display South American-themed dolls, family photos, and Christian collectibles.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Phillips comforts her dog Sunny in the living room of her Kearney, Missouri, home while taking a break from work in June. Immigrants to America, she said, "have a different perspective about life, about freedom, about sacrifices, about family. So we don't take anything for granted. We know that it takes effort. It takes work to get to this point, and that's why we want to vote."

An estimated 3.5 million voting age adults have been naturalized in the U.S. since the 2020 election, according to the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at the University of California San Diego and the National Partnership for New Americans. And the number of immigrants who are eligible to vote has increased by 93% since 2000, according to a 2020 Pew Research Center study.

Though the same Pew study points out new citizens tend to vote less than American-born citizens by around 8%, the number of new naturalized citizens in some swing states has surpassed the voting margin of recent election results.

In Arizona, where the 2020 presidential election was decided by 10,000 votes, more than 62,000 people became naturalized citizens between 2016 and 2020.

Phillips said the significance those voters have energizes her as she prepares to cast her first vote in the U.S.

“Voting is a right that we have. It wasn’t too long ago they made this a constitutional amendment so women and other minorities were able to vote,” said Phillips, who has lived in Kearney, Missouri, since 2021.

“So it's something we should remember,” she said. “This is a symbol of our freedom.”

A woman sits at a dinner table inside her home. She is typing at a laptop computer.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Phillips at her Kearney home in June, working from home as senior editor for Hallmark Cards. She and her creative planning team work on seasonal and major holiday greeting cards, and cultural heritage month cards. "I love what I do. It's all about caring and connecting people through cards," she said.

The senior editor for Hallmark Cards has worked mostly from home since the COVID pandemic, and it is partly how she’s adjusted to living in rural Missouri.

She says anti-immigrant rhetoric she’s encountered in her small community has been a culture shock, compared to more diverse cities she previously lived in, like Independence and Olathe.

“They can make some racist comments that I don't agree with most of the time. I don't want to mention anything because I don't want to get in trouble or get into some controversy,” Phillips said of living in Kearney. “I just got tired of trying to educate people when they don't understand some of the aspects, to be different in this country.”

Phillips also worries that the lack of diversity in Kearney’s schools and businesses may negatively affect her 4-year-old daughter, who was born in Merriam, Kansas.

“I'm trying to teach her about other minorities by reading her some books and teaching her that everybody looks different,” she said.

She admitted it can feel defeating at times, but Phillips isn’t dissuaded from talking with other immigrants about the significance of voting.

“It's our responsibility to exercise this right and to make it count for us, because we matter,” she said. “Now we're citizens, so we need to teach younger generations that this is very important, and it's essential for our country.”

Pushback to progress

Immigrant voting rights have again become a hot button issue this election season, and American Civil Liberties Union’s Kansas Chapter leader Micah Kubic thinks Americans need to modernize their thinking about what voter disenfranchisement looks like.

“It's not all Bull Connor and police dogs,” he said, referring to the infamous segregationist commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama, who ordered violent attacks against Martin Luther King Jr. and protesters in 1963. “Voter suppression is when we refuse to make materials available in languages other than English, when we know that it will boost voter turnout.”

Kubic also includes the fact that former President Donald Trump and others have since at least 2016 spread debunked theories about the number of noncitizens voting in American elections.

“The attacks that you see on democracy, especially these completely false, twisted ‘big lie’ attacks that tie immigration to it, are so, so harmful,” he said. “In addition to being factually wrong, they try to discourage people from participating by creating an environment of fear, harassment and intimidation.”

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3
Voters cast their ballot in August 2022 at the Midwest Genealogy Center in Independence, Missouri.

Still, Kubic said it's common in his experience for the naturalized community to be politically active, since it takes an average of seven years to complete the citizenship process, depending on birth country.

“To do that you have to be super engaged. You have to be really aware of what's going on in the world,” Kubic said. “And all of that leads, in general, to higher levels of civic engagement, including voting.”

According to a 2020 report from the National Partnership for New Americans, more than 5 million voting age immigrants became citizens between 2014 and 2020. And the Pew Research Center says 10%, or 23.2 million, of the eligible voters in the 2020 presidential election were naturalized citizens, a record high.

The path forward

In her suburban Kearney neighborhood, cut out of acres of fertile farmland, Phillips often reflects on the challenges of navigating the administrative pathway to citizenship.

She remembers living with the constant worry that sudden policy changes in Washington or Jefferson City or Topeka might make obtaining citizenship harder, or that simple legal issues like a traffic ticket could be considered crimes or a lack of moral standing by a court.

“Having that concern that at any given time they can just take your residency away because it's subject to some conditions,” she said, “that was very stressful to me. So I wanted to do this for me, but mainly for my family, just to provide some security.”

Phillips is especially grateful for her legal status because she knows other immigrants may never get the opportunity to take the citizenship test, let alone pass it.

“It takes a lot of sacrifices and money and it's a huge investment just to become an American citizen,” she said. “Once the ceremony was over, I felt very proud of myself."

A woman stands at a granite kitchen counter. A refrigerator can be seen behind her. She is holding onto a coffee bean grinder and watching it grind coffee.
Lawrence Brooks IV
KCUR 89.3
Phillips, a newly naturalized American citizen from Mexico, makes coffee on a break from work. "I think I will be leaning a little bit more towards that person that really cares about immigrants with their policies," she said of her first time voting in an American election.

Phillips' husband, who is a natural-born citizen, doesn’t share her passion for voting. She said he sometimes complains about issues like taxes and inflation, but doesn’t feel compelled to vote.

His attitude reinforces her ideas about Americans taking privileges like voting for granted. Still, it doesn’t affect her enthusiasm for making her voice heard.

“I just let it go because, I mean, you just pick your battles, right?” she said. “But I hope he votes in the upcoming elections.”

Phillips said she still doesn’t know who she’ll choose for president in November, but issues like education, health care and public safety will be top of mind when she goes to the polls.

“I’m excited because it will give me the opportunity to preserve the democracy of this country,” she said.

Corrected: July 2, 2024 at 4:23 PM CDT
A previous version of this story misidentified the age of Cindy Phillips' daughter. It has been corrected.
As KCUR’s race and culture reporter, I work to help readers and listeners build meaningful and longstanding relationships with the many diverse cultures that make up the Kansas City metro. I deliver nuanced stories about the underrepresented communities that call our metro home, and the people whose historically-overlooked contributions span politics, civil rights, business, the arts, sports and every other realm of our daily lives.
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