I’ll never forget the day I finally became a citizen. It was 2008, six years after I arrived in Portland and eight after leaving my native Ghana. Becoming an American felt like being born again. In some ways, I was born again. Everyone has always called me by my middle name, Pious. So that day, I decided to make it official. Legally becoming Pious Ali allowed me to express my hope for the future: one where I am equal to every other American.

It’s why I chose the life of a public servant. When I came here, I worked as a dishwasher at Giovani’s Italian Restaurant on Wharf Street. I was so grateful for my shot at the American Dream, I started volunteering with at-risk youth and eventually went to work for the youth leadership program Seeds of Peace. I ran for City Council because I wanted to represent all the people – immigrants and native-born Mainers – who were like me: starting from little and working hard to build strong lives. Eventually, I became the first African-born Muslim to hold public office in Maine. Today, I continue to serve as an at-large city councilor. And I still work with Portland’s families as program director at Portland Empowered.

Unfortunately, too many immigrants like me – those who followed the rules, contributed hard-earned tax dollars and “waited in line” – have not been able to complete their own transformation from immigrant to citizen. Today, 700,000 green card holders are stuck in the naturalization backlog. And hundreds of thousands of them should be eligible to vote this November. But that chance is being stolen from them.

The White House wants to blame the delays on the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. But their own policies created the backlog. The unnecessary vetting, fee increases and the general mismanagement of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has doubled the processing time for a single application. It’s hard not to see this as even somewhat intentional. The president ran a fiercely anti-immigrant campaign and, since his election, has drastically cut down on legal immigration. This has upset a lot of people –especially potential immigrant voters.

And yet clearing up the citizenship backlog is absolutely a net positive. In fact, Maine’s survival depends on it. The coronavirus-induced recession has put Maine in a tough spot. Citing our state’s demographic and economic makeup, a risk model produced by the global forecasting and analysis firm Oxford Economics placed us at No. 1 on the list of states most likely to experience severe COVID-related economic fallout. But immigrants can help.

Maine is the oldest state in the country, with annual deaths outpacing births. But 69.4 percent of our foreign-born population are still in their prime working years, compared to just 62.9 percent of their U.S.-born counterparts, according to New American Economy. This makes immigrants our best hope for re-growing our economy; just consider the $631.6 million that foreign-born Mainers paid in taxes in 2018, and the 14,031 jobs created by immigrant-owned businesses.


Allowing eligible immigrants to naturalize will empower these new Americans to do bigger and better things for Maine. A study looking at 21 U.S. cities found if those eligible naturalized, on average it would increase their individual earnings by nearly 9 percent, grow overall employment by 2.2 percent and push homeownership rates up by 6.3 percent. This would translate to a combined $5.7 billion GDP boost for those cities, plus more than $2 billion in additional tax dollars. Even a third of Trump supporters now agree immigrants strengthen our society.

Participating in the democratic process is the single most important privilege that comes with citizenship. The federal government promised this to 432 Mainers who are still waiting to find out if they’ll be able to vote this November. That might not seem like a significant number of votes, but it’s more than decided the 2016 winner in elections in Maine cities, including Auburn, Sanford and Brewer. The federal government is not only letting them down, but also letting down everyone who believes in fair and open elections.

At my naturalization ceremony, when I raised my hand to take the oath, it brought my life as an immigrant full circle. I publicly proclaimed my willingness to step away from the past and move forward into the future. And I did, by running for office to help my community. Those stuck in the current backlog are only asking for their own full-circle moment. For the hundreds of thousands of them who are eligible to vote, time is running out. Luckily, Maine lets voters register at the polls. But it shouldn’t be down to the wire. The federal government created this problem, and they can fix it.

Editor’s note: This commentary was changed on Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020, at 1 p.m. to reflect the fact that an earlier, specific estimate of the number of immigrants awaiting naturalization who are eligible to vote dates from April, when U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services was closed.

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