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New Americans Resist Voting
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New Americans Resist Voting

Many immigrants brave a tough road to become U.S. citizens – spending time in refugee camps, separating from family and friends and starting from scratch in a new country. But once naturalized, the new citizens register and vote at lower levels than native-born Americans. Even during the hotly contested 2008 presidential election, 71.8 percent of native citizens nationwide were registered to vote and 64.4 voted. That year, 60.5 percent of naturalized citizens were registered and 54 percent voted.

In a two-part series for the St. Louis Beacon, Kristen Hare examined the barriers to voting and what some activists are doing to help the new Americans overcome language, education, connection and access to go to the polls.

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Kristen’s Story Behind the Stories

The week of my IJJ fellowship in Norman felt, for me, like immigration-reporting boot camp, and I was the new recruit amongst a very-well trained corps. The sessions, as well as the down-time with the other fellows, the senior fellows and speakers, really sharpened my knowledge of immigration issues.

It also helped me identify something that I think is clear in my story, and that’s that immigration is different in the Midwest than it is on the coasts. We tend to get the narrative about immigration from places where there are many immigrants, but cities like mine that have small but vibrant immigrant communities have stories to tell, too.

My series explored the low voting rate among naturalized citizens and what factors, including culture, could be behind that. The biggest obstacles I faced were in grappling with what this story was really about. Culture? Civic experiences? It felt very gray and I spent a lot of time looking for numbers or some way in to help me. I had a lot of really great interviews, including from a Bosnian American and a Bolivian American. But I was looking for something more black and white.

Then, on my last day of reporting, a local professor told me that I’d have to go person to person to understand what keeps new Americans from voting. It’s culture, personality, education, language — all of the above. It was the first time that someone I interviewed acknowledged that every person is distinct and their behavior once here will be, too.

The national sources I met at the conference were all great, but they were more like big points on a map that I had to really zoom in on, and speaking with that local professor helped me feel like my reporting was finished and the writing could begin. For me, it worked to start big, zoom in and find what makes the stories in my community different.

My series was presented in two parts and I shot and produced a video. Our presentation editor also created visuals to go along with the stories.

I’ve had a very strong response, some favoriting and retweeting on twitter, and some e-mails from immigration sources I’ve worked with in the past expressing how much they liked the series. One lawyer wrote me, simply: “Great work. You are are an excellent writer.” The series ran on our site, stlbeacon.org, as well as the public media collaboration we have with our public radio station, called BeyondNovember.org.

I would not have been able to work on this project without the fellowship from IJJ. Not only did it give me a project that I needed to complete in my editors’ eyes, but it armed me with resources, sources and a strong base of knowledge I did not have before the fellowship. It’s also helped me be a stronger reporter on immigration issues in general and that’s been important as some big events have happened since around immigration, including the Supreme Court ruling on Arizona’s immigration bill.

My fellowship from the Institute for Journalism and Justice made that possible and really was like basic training (without the crunches.) While I don’t live in a city where I have to be actively deployed as an immigration reporter, I am ready when my editors need me thanks to such valuable training.

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