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Become a citizen — and you can vote

More than 100 new Americans take oath citizenship Flag Day CelebratiSpecial NaturalizatiCeremony UNO Veterans Memorial Campus 47th street Chicago June

More than 100 new Americans take the oath of citizenship at a Flag Day Celebration and Special Naturalization Ceremony at the UNO Veterans Memorial Campus on 47th street in Chicago on June 14. | Al Podgorski~Chicago Sun-Times

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Updated: August 20, 2012 11:44AM

I always have fond thoughts of Bastille Day, July 14, because it was on that date 30 years ago that I came to live in Chicago.

That evening, my then girlfriend and I had gone to dinner at a Greek restaurant on Halsted Street and there was a French street festival going on nearby. People were having a great time in the name of liberté, egalité, fraternité. I remember thinking “this is my kind of town.”

I never imagined I would end up living in Chicago all these years. I had came to the United States to be with a wonderful young woman whom I had met in Mexico, and with the idea of improving my English.

Then the years flew by. And, as happens for many immigrants, I woke up one day realizing that I had lived in Chicago longer than in my native Mexico. By then, my wife and I had two wonderful kids and I had become a U.S. citizen.

I bring this up now because we are four months away from a crucial presidential election, and some 360,000 legal permanent residents in Illinois alone are eligible to become U.S. citizens. If they did so, they could vote.

The problem is that many of them have postponed the decision to become citizens for years.

There is so much at stake in this coming election. It is not fair to anyone to watch from the sidelines how others decide our future. If these thousands of legal permanent residents were to become citizens, register to vote and go to the polls on election day, they would have a tremendous impact on the outcome.

Many immigrants choose not to become U.S. citizens because they feel their identity would be lost.

I understand that. I too, proud of my Mexican heritage, struggled for some time with whether or not to seek the citizenship of another country. I came to be an American citizen only after considering how my life had changed for the better after living for many years in this country that gave me more of a chance.

For me, becoming a U.S. citizen did not mean forgetting to speak Spanish or cutting all ties with the old country. In a globalized world, we are able to stay in touch as never before with family and friends in our country of origin. And some countries, including Mexico, allow for dual citizenship and permit their expatriates to own property and vote from abroad.

Last Saturday, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrants and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) launched an aggressive naturalization and voter registration campaign. ICIRR hopes to register 26,000 new voters by November. I support that effort, seeing it as a matter of taking personal responsibility.

Immigrant who have been legal permanent residents for five years may qualify to become U.S. citizens. That would allow them to register to vote in time for the November election, an election that simply matters too much to leave to others.

At the federal level, two visions of the economy, health care, education and immigration are competing to shape the country. At the local level, a strong voter turnout by new citizens might remind some politicians that playing hardball with immigrants is not welcome in Illinois.

Becoming a U.S. citizen was the second best decision I’ve made in my life. My best decision was to pursue that beautiful girl from Chicago.

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