They weren't going to take those comments sitting down.
After being besieged with 16-plus months of stomach-churning xenophobia from Republican presidential candidate — and later nominee — Donald Trump, it should come as little surprise that hundreds of thousands of immigrants across the country determined it high time to move forward with the naturalization process and become United States citizens.
Trump's rhetoric throughout his bid for the presidency regularly targeted Latinos, Muslims, refugees, women and other minority groups. He has based nearly an entire campaign on the promise of building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and expressed an intent to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants. He has called for a "total and complete shutdown" of Muslims from entering the country. But while his verbal attacks aimed to intimidate and isolate racial and ethnic minorities, his rhetoric may have had the opposite effect: Hundreds of thousands of immigrants made a pointed effort to gain their U.S. citizenship in order to vote and cast that vote against Trump.
Voter registration campaigns encouraging legal immigrants to naturalize, including a nationwide, nonpartisan campaign implemented by the White House, might largely influence the election. Voting workshops around the country have assisted immigrants with applications, test prep and legal guidance. There is an urgency around this campaign: The Pew Research Center reported the 2016 body politic will be "the most diverse in U.S. history" — partly due to naturalizations — with almost a third of all eligible voters being racial minorities.
Karla Rodriguez, an organizer with Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada has seen that urgency firsthand.
Rodriguez spoke to potential citizens during calls through a voter registration hotline affiliated with PLAN. "There was definitely a lot of talk about the anti-immigrant sentiment and just wanting to vote for those that aren't eligible to vote — like their undocumented family members or fellow community members," she said in a phone interview.
In the first half of 2016, more than 538,000 citizenship applications were submitted, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, up 30% from the same time period last year, and more than 8% higher when compared to the lead up to the 2012 election.
Moreover, those who become citizens are more likely to vote than people who are born citizens, according to NPR — and the individuals below are no exception. Meet six new U.S. citizens who are eager to step into the voting booth on Nov. 8.
Dany Flores, 30, Gaithersburg, Maryland
When Dany Flores was a teenager growing up in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, he didn't feel safe walking on the streets.
"From the moment that you leave the gate from school, anything could happen," Flores said. "I remember seeing the fights, the shootouts, the violence, the negativity. ... You don't have the feeling that you're protected by law enforcement."
From ages 13 to 15, Flores' parents lived in the U.S. to work on their immigration status, leaving him back home with his grandmother. When he was about 14, Flores was approached by members of rival gangs the MS-13 and Barrio 18, who tried to recruit him to their respective gangs. "Since you're a kid, you're an easy target for them to try to convince you to join them," he said. "They try to convince you that you have no family and your family is them."
"It's like you only have two options," Flores said. "If you want to take a third route, it's hard for kids to go to school, to college, to accomplish anything without being harassed or killed." He continued, "The sad thing is, those types of environments become normal to you. I might come back home, I might not come back home — it becomes part of your life. Now that I'm in America, I see that that's not normal."
Flores told his parents about the gang situation and left Honduras for the U.S. soon after. He said choosing to move to the U.S. in 2001 was the best decision he's ever made. "I was amazed at how people treat each other and how much love and respect there was — I felt welcome in every single part," he said. "My parents did not force me to come here. My parents gave me the option to come here, and it was my option as a 15-year-old boy to take. ... I left my childhood friends, my grandmother, uncles, cousins, all the stuff that I love back home, just to come to America."
Today, Flores is married and the father of two young boys, Dany Jr., 6, and Dylan, 3. "This is all I ever wanted," he said.
Flores said that as a parent, he now understands how difficult it is for children to be deprived of parental love. He said he doesn't want other families to experience that. "To be apart from those you love so much, from your kids. Now I'm a parent ... now I understand the pain and sacrifice [my parents] went through," Flores said. "And that's why it's very important for me to register and vote. I wouldn't want for families now to be taken apart because Mr. Trump wants to get 11 million undocumented people deported."
Flores said he feels a responsibility to help others achieve the American dream: "Now I can help others by raising my voice and my vote."
Flores became a citizen in May — the first person in his family to do so. He said he feels a responsibility to help others to "complete their American dream." "Now I can help others by raising my voice and my vote," he said.
Flores is comforted by Hillary Clinton's promise to present a plan for undocumented immigrants within her first days of office. "[She will] at least try to help and look into the matter instead of having them deported right away," Flores said. "She's going to try to work with those families who are looking to become U.S. citizens."
He said Trump should apologize for his sweeping, racist generalizations. "You can't really look at a person and say, 'This person is a murderer, this person is a rapist,'" Flores said. "When he said 'Mexicans,' I felt he was talking about the whole Latino community."
"We did not leave our homes, our friends, our families, to come here and be violent," Flores said. "We didn't leave what we loved the most so we could come here to destroy. We came here seeking opportunities, looking for a better future."
He said he worries that, if Trump wins, the Latino community will be plagued by the same uncertainty and danger that he faced growing up in Honduras. "We're going to be afraid to leave our homes because we're going to be deported," Flores said. "It'll bring back a lot of memories from back home. We'll be afraid to go out because we might get killed, we might not get back home to our kids."
He hopes his children ultimately get to pursue their dreams in the U.S. "I want them to see the opportunities that are on the table for them to take," Flores said. "I don't want there to be a group like back home, like the MS-13, where they're trying to dictate your future. I want them to go for their dreams, I want them to reach high to whatever they want to be in the future, I want them to be someone. And I will be there to support them like my parents did."
Becca Wonka, 40, Los Angeles
Becca Wonka, a musician originally from Nantes, France, said she spent her youth watching American films and listening to American music, including Michael Jackson and Madonna.
"All of my idols were American," Wonka, who asked that Mic refer to her by her stage name only, said.
As she grew up, she was always moved by the fact that the United States values the "pursuit of happiness" as one of its core values. "I think it is really a keyword to have in the founding documents of a nation," Wonka said. "It's definitely what attracted me to move to the U.S. It's the only country that was waving this flag to me and saying, 'Here is the constitutional right: You can come here and pursue happiness, and you'll be encouraged.'"
Wonka left France in 1996 when she was 19 and traveled to the U.S. to work as an au pair for a year in Buffalo, New York. "The first time I saw the Statue of Liberty I was on a plane coming from Buffalo, and I saw it from my window seat and I cried," Wonka said.
After returning to France, Wonka again traveled to the U.S. in 2010 to pursue her artistic passions. She became a citizen in August in order to vote in the upcoming election, and described it as "the day an actual dream became reality."
"I aligned my official identity with who I felt I was," she said.
When Wonka watched the presidential race this year, she said Donald Trump's rhetoric was eerily similar to that of French politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, the former leader of the National Front Party, a far-right, nationalist party reported to have neo-Nazi links. "[Le Pen] made jokes about the Holocaust, and I grew up seeing that man on TV and being scared, straight-up scared," she said. "Donald Trump and him have a lot in common, and when I started seeing more and more of Donald Trump while watching the debates, I kept thinking about Le Pen all the time."
"[Le Pen] was running on the same things, like fearing the immigrants and sending immigrants back to their country and hating on immigrants all the time," she said. "[Trump] didn't invent it, but he's taking it to new heights because what happens in France mainly stays in France — what happens in America concerns the entire planet."
"It's terrifying to entertain the notion that you could round up ... all kinds of people ... and just ruin their lives and deport them. ... It's even crazier to hear in a nation that is, in fact, a nation of immigrants."
Wonka said France's political system doesn't give voters a guaranteed choice between a liberal and a conservative candidate, and that she appreciates that the U.S. system seems to safeguard against that situation. She said voting for third-party candidates is dangerous.
"It's irresponsible, period," Wonka said. "I've lived through similar situations and I know for a fact that it's irresponsible. ... Splitting the vote facilitates the emergence of extreme, radical, right wing movements. If you split the vote on the left and there's a bunch of racists on the right, they're going to win, it's just as simple as that."
"We don't have the luxury of voting exactly what we feel," she continued. "It's a luxury we don't have this year because our democracy is in danger. We have the actual threat of a candidate that is extreme and has all the behaviors and all the ideas of a dictator. It could happen — it's still not off the table."
She described Trump as "the archetype of a dictator" and cited the fact that he wants to jail his opponent, as well as that he insinuated he might not accept the results of the election if he doesn't win. "He's simplifying a hateful message so that the masses can absorb it," she said. "He's only running on racism and sexism — that's it, that's his program."
Wonka believes Trump's rhetoric could lead to events similar to past atrocities. "I grew up in a country where the Holocaust was very present," she said. "My grandmother lived in occupied France. For us, it's very real. If Trump became president, that would mean putting people on trains and buses and deporting them, to where? ... It's terrifying to entertain the notion that you could round up children, women, men, all kinds of people and all kinds of nationalities, and just ruin their lives and deport them. ... It's even crazier to hear in a nation that is, in fact, a nation of immigrants."
"In America it shouldn't even be politically correct to suggest that we should deport millions of people and tear families apart just based on race because I'm pretty sure that the proposal is to round up the brown people. ... When they rounded up people to go to concentration camps in Germany, Austria, Poland — of course they rounded up Jewish people, but also gay people, gypsy people, all kinds of people who were not Christian and white. And that's basically what Trump is saying also — that you have to be white and Christian in this world."
She said that we should not underestimate the racism people exhibit toward immigrants. "With Brexit, it was the same situation. People didn't realize that — I know it sounds simple — but haters are going to vote," Wonka said. "It would be very, very bad if it was another example of that happening in America. It would be a disaster, a global disaster."
Wonka stressed the positive aspects of immigrants that are so often overlooked. "The fire and the passion that motivates someone to leave their home country and a lot of people behind and uproot their life and take enormous risks to come to America — that means they're down to work and they're on board with the program," she said. "So they're an invaluable resource, and that's how I think politicians should see immigrants, minorities and women. The greatest strength of America is the diversity."
Wonka is excited at the possibility of electing the first female president in the U.S. "I hope to be a part of a new wave of feminism," Wonka said. "Once it becomes a reality that we have a female president, a lot of women will feel empowered."
Ayoob Siddick, 55, Snohomish, Washington
Ayoob Siddick and his family, political asylees from Harare, Zimbabwe, arrived in the U.S. in 2001. In light of the discriminatory statements made by presidential candidates in the run-up to the election on Nov. 8, all six family members decided together to get their U.S. citizenship.
"Up until now, we felt safe under ... President Obama," Siddick said. "When we started hearing talk about blocking and deporting Muslims, that raised a flag for us because now there is a lot at stake. What if we end up down that road and end up getting deported, after everything we worked so hard for?"
Siddick became a U.S. citizen in March. He said in the days leading up to taking his citizenship test, he was contemplative and nervous. "I think all of us prayed so, so much on that day," Siddick said. "In private moments as you're sitting and waiting, you're praying and asking God to please make you successful. It really is overwhelming when you do end up being successful because you just weren't sure how things were going to go."
He said the most memorable moments of his citizenship ceremony were taking the oath and saying the Pledge of Allegiance. "It's just unbelievable, I even shed a tear," Siddick said. "It's different — up until that time we were stateless. We didn't belong, we were political asylees. ... Watching the video of so many people across the state taking the same Pledge of Allegiance, people of different circumstances, different backgrounds — and here you are standing there with your hand [raised]."
Siddick had said the Pledge of Allegiance before, like during his children's sporting events, but, he said, it didn't feel the same back then. "Now it actually meant we had a stake in what we were saying. We had the opportunity to contribute to the prosperity of this nation, and everything that happens now involves us. That's why it was overwhelming," he said. "Because now we were equal players."
"Now it actually meant we had a stake in what we were saying. ... That's why it was overwhelming. Because now we were equal players."
The anti-Muslim talk is what he said troubles him the most. "I don't think anybody is more targeted by Donald Trump, but that's not the road we should be traveling on," he said. "We should be traveling on the road of unification. That's what makes America great — mixing so many different nationalities, different races, different ethnic groups, different social preferences. That's what makes us shine like a beacon in the international arena. It is the ability to accommodate and accept."
Siddick indicated that it's important to see the link between words and actions. "Hate speech ends up with hate crime," Siddick said. "It's very detrimental to the stability of any nation, any country — it creates division."
Siddick spoke of how happy he and his wife are that they live in the United States because their four children — Salma, Maleeka, Mason and Rashaad, ages 23 to 32 — are all successful college graduates pursuing their passions in life. He said he hopes people understand that Muslim Americans are active and contributing members of mainstream society. "American Muslims deserve the same opportunities as all Americans to build better futures for our families and children," he said. "We want to succeed in the traditional American way, just like anybody else. We all want a taste of the American dream. There's no difference."
Siddick's main advice to all people during this election is to vote. "People need to vote — people need to educate themselves and use logic," Siddick said. "When you listen to what the potential presidential nominees are talking about, understand it fully. 'What does that mean? How does that apply to our lives? Is that in line with our vision?' Those are questions people need to ask. Sometimes I think it becomes more entertainment than people taking it seriously. They laugh and they take it lightly. But you really need to take this seriously and understand what this person stands for, what are his values and how does that come in line with your own. ... There's way too much at stake for people not to be actively involved."
If Siddick could say anything to Trump, he would tell him to rethink his stance on all aspects of his platform. "There's a lot at stake — you can destabilize a great nation and create a divide," he said. "We want to do the opposite, we want to be strong, we want to stay great. You can't make America great — it's great already."
Neeti Vetter, 32, Columbus, Ohio
As a young child in Bhavnagar, India, Neeti Vetter was fascinated with the United States.
"People don't realize that, if you're a kid and you don't live in America, all you hear about is America — it's the greatest country on Earth," Vetter said. "'What, everybody has a car? Everyone has running hot water?' When you're 9, it's crazy."
Vetter's parents waited 12 years for their applications to come to the U.S. to be approved — they had applied before Vetter was even born. After dreaming about moving to the U.S. for her entire life, she finally arrived in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, in June 1993.
"I had this vision of America in my head growing up, and I always knew we were going to come here even before my family was approved because in my heart I believed it to be true," Vetter said. "I think that's why when we did finally make it over here, it was so easy for me to feel at home. ... I just immediately knew I was American."
Though Vetter said she has always been a contributing member of society, the one thing she could not do was vote. When she heard Trump's discriminatory rhetoric, she knew it was time to become a citizen, saying she "decided right then and there," even going so far as to print the application and submit it the following day.
"I remember during the primaries people were still skeptical of Trump winning the GOP nomination, but I didn't want to take that chance. I knew this election was going to be the most important of my lifetime."
Vetter said her vote this election is not just for herself, but for those who can't afford a Trump presidency — including immigrants, Muslims, refugees and the LGBTQ community, and she cited Martin Niemöller's poem "First They Came..." as an especially important piece of work in her decision.
"I strongly believe at the end of the day if Trump becomes president, the future generation is going to be asking us what we did to stop it."
Her citizenship ceremony was held in August. She said that once she arrived at the courthouse, everyone becoming a citizen that day sat in a hushed room and looked at their phones, read or talked quietly to the people they came with. Then, a man stood up and made a speech.
"[The speech was] about just how amazing it was that we were all there and what we were there for," she said. "He asked people to start naming off the countries they were from. ... When it was all over we all collectively looked at each other with a smile and the room went quiet again. ... It was just a really beautiful moment."
Vetter and her cohort then entered a courtroom, and they each took turns stating why they had decided to become citizens. A common theme among many of them, she said, was voting. "I don't know how many other instances there are where you're just surrounded by so many different people from so many different walks of life who are there for one purpose," Vetter said. "It was so apparent that even the judge halfway through it kind of laughed and said, 'Oh, is there something important going on in November or something?'" Vetter recalled that when the judge asked a man in her group why he was becoming a citizen, he simply answered, "The orange guy."
On the day she received her citizenship, Vetter said her thankfulness for her parents' diligence was at the forefront of her mind. "I'm a few years older now than they were when they applied, and there is nothing that I want so badly in my life that I'm willing to wait 12 years for it," she said. "I was thinking about my parents, the sacrifices they made and the uncertainty they must have had making such a big decision — and the weight of that decision and what it meant for their family."
"I think the reason I don't need to wait 12 years for anything is because I have a great life. And that great life was given to me by my parents and by this country."
Vetter is especially excited to cast her first vote in a U.S. presidential election for the first female presidential nominee of a major party — and to do it all in a swing state. "They say where Ohio goes the country goes," she said. "I'm just happy I'm living in Ohio right now."
She indicated that she finds it frustrating when people discuss a protest vote or a third-party vote in this particular election. "Remember, Al Gore lost Florida by less than 600 votes and Nader got 100,000 votes, and Florida decided the entire election," Vetter said. "I hate to tell people not to vote with their heart, but I honestly strongly believe that this election is not the election for the protest vote. I think there are times for a protest vote ... but this election is not it."
"I strongly believe at the end of the day if Trump becomes president, the future generation is going to be asking us what we did to stop it. And I'm not sure people are going to be happy with their protest vote then."
Khaula Hadeed, 32, Birmingham, Alabama
Khaula Hadeed grew up in Islamabad, Pakistan, before moving to the United States in 2002 when she was 18. She said when she was a child, her parents made sure to treat her the same as her four brothers, despite cultural norms.
"As a girl you mostly wouldn't be allowed to literally be on the streets playing alongside the boys all day long — that was something after a certain age you wouldn't do, culturally," she said. "For me that was different, and I think that was because my parents were adamant about treating me and my brothers exactly the same."
Hadeed's parents insisted on making sure she received the top educational opportunities as well. After coming to the U.S., she received her bachelor's degree in political science and law, her master's degree in international relations, and her J.D. "I was so driven when I got here, I was like, 'OK. This is an opportunity of a lifetime,'' she said. "I was absolutely grateful, and I don't think that's an experience many girls have growing up, not just in Pakistan, but in South Asia."
Hadeed co-founded the Alabama chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a grassroots civil rights and advocacy group and the largest such group for Muslims in the U.S., in 2015, and she currently serves as its executive director. Hadeed and her colleagues felt the need to create an Alabama chapter to address the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment and bullying in the state.
But even with her experience, Hadeed said when she first heard Trump calling for "a total and complete shutdown" of Muslims entering the country while watching TV with her husband, she was floored. "We sat and watched one news channel after another and [Trump] kept saying it and he would repeat it," she said. "I was like, 'Wow, is this really happening here?'"
She said other public officials' condemnation of Trump's statements was extremely important. "That's what made him say he didn't really mean it," Hadeed said. "It was an extremely powerful moment when President Obama went to a mosque in all his years in office and gave a big, powerful speech about what it means to be an American and Muslim. Those times were a moment of reprieve for the Muslim community."
After Trump's call for a moratorium on Muslim immigrants, Hadeed was flooded with supportive phone calls, text messages, Facebook messages and emails from friends checking in on her. Trump's comments, she said, made her feel unwelcome. "It made me feel worried, it made me feel sad, I was disturbed, I'm still disturbed," she said. "I didn't think it would affect me like that but it has. And it's made me question — which it shouldn't — whether someone like me is actually welcome in America. I never thought that was possible, he actually made me feel 'less-than.'"
Hadeed had been a permanent resident for the past five years, and felt no urgency to acquire her citizenship until Trump's candidacy. "For the first time in all these years here, we were literally worried that something was going to happen and we might not be able to stay here," she said.
She is extremely happy with her decision to become an American citizen, and said there's no other place for her and her family. She spoke of the solemnity of the moment when she took the oath. "You never think you have that right and that power, where you can just stand somewhere and say, 'This is what I choose.' You're so conscious of it, you're making this choice. Suddenly, you feel that responsibility."
This will be Hadeed's first time ever voting in any election. When she left Pakistan, she said it was under the rule of a dictator and there were no elections — once that changed, she was already residing in the U.S. "I want to be a participant in this process, I believe in this process," she said. "I believe in democracy — I believe every person's voice counts and every person, just by casting a vote, makes it strong."
Hadeed said her life in the U.S. has deeply influenced her. "I am a better person because I moved to America," she said. "I don't think I could have been the same person if I was anywhere in the world. And that's because these American values are so universally human. They're so humanistic."
Hadeed's background in law provides her a unique understanding of what it means to live under the U.S. Constitution — and she insists that Trump's proposed policies are at sharp odds with the intentions of the nation's founders. She discussed how the constitution is a revered document around the world, and that what Trump touts is patently not in line with the morals and values of the United States. "That's not what my understanding of America is," she said. "I don't even think it's un-American — it's not of America. ... I don't think that's what Americans want or what Americans think America is — or what anybody who is not American, who lives outside of America, thinks America is."
"It's been a rough year for everyone — especially people who believe in the American dream."
She said the bigotry pervasive in the country at this time, and the decision to treat Muslims like a "despised minority," hurts everyone — irrespective of faith — because it normalizes targeting segments in our society in general. "People are so full of fear that they are literally absolutely fine with letting go of their own rights and their own liberties, just because we have created a monster out there, that we don't even know exists, in our fellow neighbor, our fellow American," Hadeed said. "It's been a rough year for everyone — especially people who believe in the American dream."
She's worried for those Muslim children who are being bullied about their faith, and said it's commonplace for bullies to accuse Muslims of "making a big deal out of nothing." "There's a distinction where, if it was anti-Semitic, people would know immediately," she said. "They'd say, 'Yeah, that's hate speech.' If it's directed toward African-Americans, you'd know it's hate speech. We're at a time when you see hate speech directed at Muslims and people don't think that's hate speech. ... I think that speaks to where we are as a society. We don't believe Islamophobia is real. We're not there yet."
She said Muslim Americans need to navigate how to speak about and understand social justice. "As a Muslim community, we need to understand the black experience here in America, the civil rights experience here, because there's so much there to learn from and to understand from that struggle," she said.
Hadeed hopes for a world where her 18-month-old daughter, Ayra, is accepted for who she is, her ethnicity and her background. "I hope she's proud of it and she isn't made to feel like she has to hide who she is and where she comes from," she said. "Hopefully she grows up in an America where people are proud of her Muslim heritage and think of her as a partner — and as someone that is as American as apple pie."
Cristina Trejo, 38, Chicago
Cristina Trejo, originally from Ecatepec, Mexico, came to the United States to seek a better future for her family.
"I came to the U.S. because that's when the violence really started happening in Mexico and I wanted to keep my daughters safe," Trejo said through a translator.
After eight years of residing in the country, she became a citizen in June 2015, the same month that Trump said Mexicans are bringing "crime" and "rapists." "I feel offended at the things he said because it's not true," Trejo said. "Those Mexicans that are immigrants are coming so they can have a better life and to better themselves and their families. It's not to harm people — it's to help create a better life."
"He doesn't have the knowledge of how Mexicans are," Trejo said. "There are a lot of Mexicans in Mexico that are also very upset. Hopefully with the vote I can speak for those people that can't against him, hopefully it will help the country make a better choice."
"How can we trust someone to lead the country if all he's doing is lying to the people about things that he doesn't know?"
Trejo said the language barrier proved to be a difficult hurdle in the naturalization process, but the endgame was all worth it. "I was nervous and scared because I didn't know if I could handle the language, but my citizenship teacher helped and really pushed me to do my best, and to learn and see that I could do the interview and I could become a citizen," she said.
Becoming a citizen was important to her because it was a concrete way to make her voice heard and to vote for the best interest of her family. "I felt like I was doing something very important and I was going to be able to help those who couldn't have their voices heard," she said.
"[Clinton] has the most logical ideas," Trejo continued. "I think she's more realistic in what she plans to do. ... She has been in different governmental positions in the past, and when she speaks she sounds like she knows what she's saying — she's prepared for it."
"There are a lot of Mexicans in Mexico that are also very upset. Hopefully with the vote I can speak for those people that can't against him, hopefully it will help the country make a better choice."
Trejo's reasons for voting against Trump are both personal and practical. "He's very discriminatory and he's very racist," she said. "I know a lot of people, friends — I think they'll be affected if there is a Trump presidency."
"I hope not," she said with crossed fingers.
Her advice to fellow citizens is to educate themselves on the candidates, and to vote. "A lot of the stuff we watch on TV doesn't necessarily give us the whole story — so we should educate ourselves and try to learn more, especially with the internet, and not just rely on what the TV says, so we can make a solid decision," Trejo said. "What I've seen in Mexico is people do not believe in any of the parties, and they'll simply not vote instead of trying to educate themselves and trying to make a decision."
She cited events in Colombia when there was a peace treaty between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government, and the ceasefire was put to a vote. The majority of people wanted the peace agreement, but did not vote, and the peace deal was rejected by a narrow margin. "They were not expecting it because they thought nothing bad would happen if they did not vote," Trejo said. "It's really important for us to have our voices heard and that we go out and fill out that ballot."