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'Taking the step’ forward - naturalized citizens vote for first time
Jadiel Bonilla, left, and his father, Junior Bonilla Moran. Junior Bonilla voted for the first time in a presidential election after becoming a U.S. citizen last year. - photo by Nick Watson

Junior Aldenis Bonilla Moran’s residency card was about to expire roughly two years ago when he thought about making a change. It cost roughly the same amount to apply to become a citizen as it was to renew his residency card, he said. 

“I think it’s about time for me to apply to be a citizen, because I’ve been here most of my life,” Bonilla said. 

The Pew Research Center said in February there are now more than 23 million U.S. immigrants, which is roughly 10% of eligible voters, who have become citizens and can vote in the Tuesday, Nov. 3, presidential election. 

“Growth in the foreign-born eligible voter population reflects two broad U.S. population trends,” according to Pew. “First, the number of immigrants living in the U.S. has increased steadily since 1965, when the Immigration and Nationality Act became law. Then, the nation’s 9.6 million immigrants made up just 5% of the population. Today, 45 million immigrants live in the country, accounting for about 13.9% of the population. Most are either from Latin America or Asia.” 

Pew said the second factor is that a rising number of immigrants have naturalized, with 7.2 million immigrants becoming citizens between 2009 and 2019.  

“In fiscal year 2018 alone, more than 756,000 immigrants naturalized,” according to Pew. 

Bonilla was born in El Salvador, which was reeling from a civil war between 1979 and 1992. His father got a work visa and eventually moved to Gainesville. 

“With his hard work and dedication year after year, he was able to apply for my mom (a) green card,” Bonilla said. 

The family was then able to subsequently petition for Bonilla and his siblings to become legal permanent residents in a year-after-year process, with Junior Bonilla arriving in the country at around 6 years old. 

Bonilla would become the first in his immediate family to become a citizen except for his sister, who was born in the U.S.  

“I took the step. I was like, ‘I’ve got to take this step so maybe my brothers can follow my footsteps too and build a foundation for my family,’” Bonilla said. 

Bonilla said he hoped his vote could make a change. He said his political concerns were about his friends who are affected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a program that provides legal protection in certain cases for people who immigrated to the U.S. as children. 

The application process involved pictures, a money order, notarized documents, fingerprinting and an interview. 

Bonilla has been a citizen for more than a year since his naturalization ceremony, where he and dozens of others from different countries swore an oath. 

“I was shocked at how many different people applied and want to also become a citizen,” Bonilla said. “It was shocking, emotional but also fulfilling.” 

Bonilla said he submitted his ballot this week.

“I was just going through my mind, ‘Did I make the right decision? Did I not?’” Bonilla said about his thought process when deciding his ballot. 

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, naturalization ceremonies and interviews were postponed, though the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office resumed operations in June. 

Jama Ibrahim, a Gainesville immigration attorney, said he could think of a handful of clients who were naturalized in time to register before the election. 

People are often given their voter registration information at the naturalization ceremony, Ibrahim said. 

“The ability to petition family to become residents and the right to vote are the main benefits of becoming a naturalized citizen,” Ibrahim said. “There are people who live in this country as residents and never naturalize.” 

Suleman Pirani poses with a certificate and an American flag after becoming a U.S. citizen. Pirani was able to cast a ballot for the upcoming Nov. 3 election, his first presidential election since becoming a citizen. Provided by Suleman Pirani

Suleman Pirani, one of Ibrahim’s recent clients, and his wife arrived in 1997 in New York. He started looking for a work sponsorship, and his paperwork was filed in 2001 by his labor certification sponsor. 

In 2004, he received a work permit and became a legal permanent resident in 2008. 

His path to citizenship started in 2012 but was derailed in 2015, when his application was denied. 

“We filed an appeal. However, we didn’t even receive a response to that appeal for a whole year,” said Pirani’s daughter Aneesa Pirani. “So then our lawyer suggested, ‘Well, there’s nothing stopping you from just filing one more time.’” 

Pirani, who now operates a gas station with his wife in Summerville, had his naturalization ceremony in August, allowing him to register for the election and submit his ballot. 

“What he mostly kept in mind was that his vote has power, even if it’s one vote, and his most important value is the value for human life, the value to be able to get anyone respect and get anyone their dignity,” Aneesa Pirani said. 

The Pirani family was particularly grateful for the work from Ibrahim and paralegal Suraiya Sultan, who worked tirelessly on the case. 

“Every time we lost hope, they were there,” Aneesa Pirani said. 

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