A civic journey: From immigrant to citizen to voter

Shailu Somaraju clutched her League of Women Voters of Baltimore County Voters’ Guide as she walked to the check-in table at the polls in Western School of Technology in Catonsville.

When election workers found out that it was her first time voting, they cheered.

“I wish we had a bell we could ring,” one said. Somaraju grinned.

Somaraju, 49, an immigrant from India, and a resident of Catonsville for almost 25 years, became a naturalized citizen of the United States in 2017.

Her husband, Bala Akundi, 54, and her daughter, Uma Akundi, 19, who accompanied Somaraju, have voted before. Uma Akundi’s first vote was in the 2016 presidential election. Bala Akundi has been a citizen since 2004, and has cast ballots in every major election since.

Uma Akundi, in the days leading up to the election, joined some of her friends and made phone calls urging voters to support Johnny Olszewski Jr., one of four Democratic candidates for county executive.

Uma Akundi said she did phone banking for the candidate twice, and was at Olszewski’s election night party. She said it was “incredible” to see her mother voting.

“When I went voting for the first time, it was just me and met dad. This was a big moment for us. In another two or three years, my brother will be able to do the same,” she said.

Uma Akundi said she watched Somaraju go through the citizenship process, so casting a ballot with her was a “milestone.”

Somaraju said she was proud of her daughter’s political involvement.

“We need more youth involvement, whether it’s my kid or anyone else’s kid,” Somaraju said. “I was happy to see her get out a little bit, instead of not being part of [the election].”

Somaraju said she thinks more youth involvement is important because young people have to live with political consequences longer than older voters do.

“They have long lives ahead, they will be the ones who will either reap the benefits of good policy or suffer the disadvantages of bad policy,” Somaraju said.

She said she felt “awesome” after voting — she moved from India when she was 20, so she never voted there — the legal voting age for most of her life in India was 21; the Indian government lowered the voting age to 18 in December 1989, after Somaraju had moved to the U.S.

The path to citizenship

After graduation from from St. Francis College for Women in Hyderabad, India, with a bachelor’s degree in general sciences, in May 1989, she moved to the United States in August 1989 to pursue a higher education, one of an estimated 400,000 other foreign students.

She began pursuing a master’s in chemistry at Virginia Tech in 1989, but transferred to the University of Maryland, Baltimore where she got her doctorate in pharmaceutical sciences in 1999.

In 2002, Somaraju founded NextBreath, a company that specializes in laboratory testing of pulmonary and nasal drug delivery. She sold the company to Aptar Pharma in 2015.

Today, about 1.1 million international students come to the United States each school year on a student visa, according to data from the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based think take that dedicates itself to studying migration worldwide.

Somaraju started the process to earn her citizenship in the early 2000s. But when it came time to take the oath, she changed her mind.

At the time, Somaraju said, she was applying for citizenship to make it easier for her to travel to Europe for work and to India to visit family.

“I seemed to be [applying] because it was convenient,” she said. “I did not want to take the citizenship like that.”

In July 2016 she applied for citizenship again. She had for years followed the news and argued for being an engaged participant in politics, but realized her talk was ringing hollow, since she could not vote.

She said she realized that being an active participant in a democracy, and whatever “piece of paper” defines her citizenship, is not as important as holding those beliefs — like support for a free press and for public involvement in politics.

“It was more to participate than anything else,” Somaraju said. “That became more important.”

Jim McKinney, a field liaison and supervisory public affairs officer for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) in Baltimore, said it would be “incredibly difficult” to put any sort of a standard timeline on how long it takes an immigrant to go from visa holder to naturalized citizen, because there are so many different pathways.

Last year in Maryland, McKinney said, more than 19,000 people were naturalized.

According to USCIS data, there were about 18,000 pending citizenship applications in Maryland at the beginning of 2018.

About 27 percent of immigrants to the United States held college or university degrees when they arrived between 1985-1990, according to an analysis by the Migration Policy Institute. Between 2011 and 2015, that number had grown to 48 percent.

Getting political

When Somaraju went to the polls on June 26, she said she wasn’t motivated by one particular issue or platform.

In the past, she said, that wouldn’t have been the case. Not even a full year ago, according to Somaraju, she would have chosen how to vote based on issues such as gun control, environmental protection, funding for education or access to health care.

But the political polarization that followed the election of President Donald Trump has changed that, she said. Somaraju wants to see elected officials with “civility” and who support “democratic principles.”

“I want to see leaders who have a certain strength of character, and who are fitting of the office,” she said. “And who are not driven so much by ideology, but are willing to be public servants for all America, not just their own base.”

She added that “civility” to her doesn’t mean “we respectfully accept the bad of what’s happening. I mean to engage in a dialogue that gets results that are good for all Americans, not just superficial political correctness.”

Somaraju voted for Krish Vignarajah for governor, she said. Because of polling numbers she had seen leading up to the election, Somaraju said she wasn’t surprised when Vignarajah did not clinch the nomination.

Normally, Somaraju said, she wouldn’t have put her support behind someone she thought was going to lose. But, Somaraju said, she hopes Vignarajah sees the people who supported her and believed in her message and stays politically active.

“In her case, I believe she has so much potential, showing support for a candidate like that will keep her involved, maybe she’ll try for something else down the road,” Somaraju said.

Vignarajah has said she wants to be involved in the gubernatorial race and is supporting the primary Democratic winner, former NAACP President Ben Jealous.

For Somaraju, being a first-time voter was not just about selecting an individual to support. It was about doing her homework and actively choosing which candidate aligned with her views.

Somaraju took the voting guide with her, and filled out a sample ballot, before walking to the voting booth. She said she didn’t want to be “scratching her head” trying to figure out who to vote for.

“I don't want to just go push a button. I want to go read,” she said. “The only way most of us get our voice heard, is through our vote. We don’t have a chair at the big table. All we can do is go to the poll and cast our vote.”

cboteler@baltsun.com

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