New Citizens Look Forward to First Vote

Paloma Valoz and Jonathan Schoss, now U.S. citizens, cast their first ballots.

SYRACUSE, N.Y., Nov. 4, 2008 -- Four years ago, Paloma Valoz was 18 years old, but she couldn't legally vote. That's because she wasn't a U.S. citizen. Now, four years later, she says the right to vote couldn't come at a better time.

"It's really cool to be able to vote, especially in this year because this election is extremely exciting and historical," she said.

But the road to Election Day wasn't short. Valoz first came to the United States in July 2001 when she was 15 years old. Her parents left the Dominican Republic in 1998 because they wanted new opportunities, she said. They later sent for her and her brother, and her family now lives in Manhattan, New York. At the time, she said she didn't realize what was in her future.

"When I was in the Dominican Republic, if you had asked me if I needed to leave I would have said no. I had everything I needed. I was going to a good school, we had jobs and a house, but obviously my parents were seeing things I wasn't seeing at the moment," she said. What they saw, she said, was opportunity.

Applying for Citizenship

Valoz's father was the first in her family to gain citizenship. At that time, the Syracuse University senior had lived in the United States for five years and was already over 18 years old. As an adult, she had to apply for citizenship on her own.

It started with an application. Valoz, 22, remembers that costing about $500. Now it's $675. The process continued with an interview and a written exam. Valoz remembers the exam, which included reading comprehension, a written portion and American history, as being easy. Knowing English gave her an advantage, she said.

"They asked me questions, like what is the meaning of the stars in the flag? I don't remember the rest of the questions, but they were easy. And that was that and I became a citizen," she said.

But throughout the whole process, the gravity of citizenship never hit her, she said, until the swearing-in ceremony.

"The most emotional part of it was that, before the ceremony, you have to turn in your green card because it's not yours anymore. And when I gave it up, it was weird because it was something I had protected for so long," Valoz said.

That was the end of last year. And her excitement for the election has been building ever since.

Educated About the Issues

Jonathan Schoss, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Syracuse is also a first-time voter. He moved to the United States from Israel in 1995 because his father got a job as a software engineer when Schoss was 5 years old.

He became a U.S. citizen last winter.

His family lives in Westchester County, N.Y., but he registered to vote at school so he could physically pull the lever on Election Day.

"It's going to be good. I think I'm going to walk out of there and know I'm educated about what I'm doing and that I made my difference," he said.

Being educated about the issues is something Schoss and Valoz both found important.

In choosing her candidate, Valoz said she thought a lot about health care and the economy. Two of her other concerns were immigration and education. Both are topics she doesn't think either candidate has spent a lot of time addressing.

"There are 12 million people out there who don't have documentation. We also need to decide what we are going to do about racial profiling. And we need to figure out what is national security and what is freedom," she said.

For Schoss, relations with the Middle East are important because that's where he's from, he said. But because he considers the U.S. his home, the issues he focused on were the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the economy.

"The economy affects all of us. It's a scary thing that a lot of my friends may not be able to come back to school next year because of the economy," he said.

As the election draws closer, Valoz remembers politics back in the Dominican Republic when she was a child.

"I remember being very little and knowing who my candidate was because I knew who my parents were going to vote for. And I would identify myself with those colors or those signs and I'd even get into little arguments with my friends from school about their candidates from other parties," she said.

That's because politics in the Dominican Republic were linked with many other aspects of life. When a new candidate won, a wave of people were fired as people from the new administration took their place. Valoz remembers that happening about every four years, she said.

'Life Is Here'

Schoss was younger when he made the U.S. his new home and said he only remembers small things about the Israeli government.

"I don't remember a lot about politics there, mostly because I live here now. My whole life is here and I'm more obligated to be aware of what's going on here," he said.

But while Valoz vividly remembers the Dominican Republic, she said she, too, considers America her home. She knows she would have been happy if she stayed, she said, but the opportunities she's had in America are beyond what she could have imagined.

That's why she's so excited to vote, in an election that's not only historic for the country, but also for her. "I never voted in my country of origin. So it's kind of special that the first time I'm voting is in my new home," Valoz said.