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Northeast Ohio’s Newest American Citizens Seize Chance To Become Voters

It happens at the Carl B. Stokes U.S. Courthouse in downtown Cleveland every other Friday: A diverse group of immigrants gathers in the Jury Assembly Room – and leaves as American citizens.

It’s called a naturalization ceremony – the final part of the process by which a foreign citizen or national is granted U.S. citizenship. The ceremony is joyous and emotional, and each one brings together people from dozens of different countries.

“We obviously have a lot from Bhutan, but today we had one large family from Pakistan,” said Judge Dan A. Polster of the Northern District of Ohio. He says he’s seen just about every country represented in the 20 years he’s presided over the naturalization ceremonies as a federal district court judge.

Federal District Court Judge Dan A. Polster shakes hands with a new U.S. citizen from China before handing him his Certificate of Naturalization.

But all the nationalities represented in these crowds over the years have something in common, he said. “They all have the immigrant spirit. It is all these courageous entrepreneurial people who have a lot more courage than, candidly, I think I would have," said Polster. "I mean, to leave everyone you know, your family, your friends, your language, your culture and come a long way away to a place where everything is different.”

One important difference might be the ability to cast a meaningful ballot for the first time.

“For some of these men and women, this will be the first really free election they'll have,” said Polster. “There may have been elections, but there maybe is only one person on the ballot or someone's checking sort of surreptitiously who you vote for.”

So, while the ceremony begins inside, just steps outside the door, Cathy Goskey from the Cuyahoga County Board of Elections and Simeon Best from Cuyahoga County Department of Health and Human Services prepare to turn new citizens into new voters.

Simeon Best, the Voting Rights Coordinator for Cuyahoga County Health and Human Services, checks over the voter registration form of a new U.S. citizen just outside the Jury Assembly Room.

“Today, we're registering people to vote. So as soon as they finish their ceremonies, we are giving them the cards they can fill out,” said Best. The voter registration cards go to the Board of Elections, and the newly registered voters will then receive a follow-up card in the mail explaining how to vote.  

During the ceremony, Judge Polster gives the new citizens a gentle nudge to register when it's over, but there’s no arm-twisting required.  “As soon as they walk out the of the door, they're ready,” said Best. “Coming here and being really able to participate now and let their voice be counted, anyone would be excited for that opportunity.”

Excited might be an understatement for Deena Sheikh, originally from Pakistan, a country with a history of election-related violence and shaky leadership.

“That is kind of the first important thing of you being a citizen because you get to say what's going to happen in the country. You get to say what's going to happen in the state or even county-wide,” said Sheikh. “So you will have a voice.”