More than the right to vote: What does it mean to become a U.S. citizen?

Another reason some people may not vote is because they feel like it doesn’t matter.

This month’s primary election has come and gone and while the results are definitely important, let’s take a look at a different number.

Voter turnout in King County for this month’s primary election was 34.44 percent, according to the Secretary of State website. And in neighboring Snohomish and Pierce counties, turnout was 24.32 percent and 20.56 percent, respectively, according to the Secretary of State website.

Broken down like that, it doesn’t look good.

There are any number of reasons for why people don’t vote — ranging from forgetfulness to laziness. I will be the first to admit to being guilty of hanging on to my ballot for too long until it was too late, and I will even cop to it being for the aforementioned reasons.

Another reason some people may not vote is because they feel like it doesn’t matter and their vote doesn’t count.

But for newly minted U.S. citizen Ksenia Khokhlova, voting in this month’s primary was the first time she felt her vote really meant something. As an immigrant originally from Russia — where elections may be more, shall we say, predetermined — the Issaquah resident believes her vote counts here.

Khokhlova and her husband became naturalized U.S. citizens on July 4 and were sworn in at the annual ceremony held at Seattle Center. They were two among 500 people from 80 countries to become new Americans.

“It was a big ceremony,” Khokhlova said.

The right to be here

Khokhlova moved to the United States eight years ago with her husband and their then 3-year-old daughter. Her husband had been hired at Microsoft in Redmond.

When they first arrived, because she was in the country under an H-4 visa — issued to to the immediate family members of the H-1B visa holders (her husband) — Khokhlova couldn’t work. So she volunteered. It wasn’t until she received a green card in 2013 that she was able to work — but that was also when she was pregnant with her second child so that delayed her ability to get a job for a bit.

It took another five years of waiting before Khokhlova and her husband were able to apply for citizenship. They did so on April 18.

For Khokhlova, being a citizen means rights.

“It’s not just rights to vote,” she said. “It’s rights to be here…I have a right. I deserve it.”

To her, citizenship means being good enough to be part of the community.

Despite this love, Khokhlova said she has felt unwelcomed sometimes. She shared how other mothers at her kids’ schools wouldn’t want to listen to her. And when she and her family were at a public park in Bellevue a few weeks ago, she said an older woman told them — maybe after hearing their accented English — that she had lived in that area for decades and did not like newcomers.

But Khokhlova admits she probably has it easier because she is white and “European looking.”

Thinking on their toes

When I spoke to her on Aug. 8, Xiao Ling Guo, who is from China, was in the process of becoming a citizen. She had her interview scheduled later this month.

She said she applied to become a citizen because she likes being in a free country and like Khokhlova, having the right to vote is important to her.

The Bellevue resident first moved to the United States in 1996, arriving in Florida before making her way to Washington, where her son attends high school. She received her green card in 2009 and has been taking classes through Jewish Family Service (JFS) in Redmond to help prepare her for the interview.

Irene Lundquist, an English language and citizenship instructor for JFS, said the naturalization interview can essentially be broken into four parts: reading, writing, civics and the N-400 interview.

The first three are pretty straightforward. Applicants must read a sentence in English out loud; they have to write down a sentence in English and they have to get at least six out of 10 civics (pertaining to U.S. government and history) questions correct. It’s that last one — the N-400 — that can be tricky.

Lundquist said this is because there are questions related to whether people have left the country and includes a morals/ethics portion. She said there are yes/no questions about whether candidates have participated in genocide, torture or communism, and for people whose first language is not English, learning new vocabulary — especially for terms not typically used in everyday conversation — can be tricky.

And now, Lundquist said, interviewers will ask followup questions such as, “What is genocide?” And having to think on the spot to answer — in a language that is not your native tongue — can easily trip you up.

“Students get so locked into the memorization,” Lundquist said, adding that they are working on getting students out of that mode and having them practice thinking on their toes.

JFS classes are free and held year-round. Lundquist said they are on a drop-in basis so people can attend as they are able and need to.

Improving naturalization resources

In addition to JFS, King County Library System (KCLS) also provides citizenship classes.

In a statement, KCLS public relations specialist Sarah Thomas and diversity services coordinator Jo Anderson-Cavinta said providing immigrants, refugees and English-language learners an opportunity to learn about becoming a U.S. citizen has always been an important, core service at KCLS.

“Becoming a U.S. citizen has many benefits, such as the right to vote, the ability to sponsor family members in obtaining their green card, the opportunity to run for public office, eligibility for federal employment, the ability to travel abroad for long periods of time, and much more,” they wrote.

The library system’s Literacy Towards Citizenship program provides free test preparation and access to study materials and is facilitated by community volunteers. Thomas and Anderson-Cavinta said classes are held on a weekly basis for an hour and a half to two hours at designated libraries. There are six classes offered on the Eastside.

“This year, 22 volunteers have logged 529 hours, and welcomed 217 new students in 188 class sessions,” they wrote.

While there are some opportunities for people to receive help with becoming naturalized there is work being done to provide more.

Debbie Lacy, co-founder and executive director of Eastside Refugee and Immigrant Coalition (ERIC), said her organization is working with the India Association of Western Washington and the Muslim Community Resource Center as well as KCLS to improve Eastside resources for naturalization. This work includes holding forums and clinics as well as a public education campaign.

“It’s slow going,” she said, adding that the cities of Redmond and Kirkland have both provided some funding to the cause.

Lacy said there is also work among community groups to get people trained so they can take the citizenship classes to their respective communities since going to the library for classes may not be an option for any number of reasons.

In addition to the naturalization interviews, Lacy said there are also financial barriers as it costs upwards of $700 just to apply. There may also be specialized attorney fees, which is not cheap. So people may procrastinate to apply because it’s expensive.

Lacy said Seattle Credit Union now offers low-interest loans for people who need it, adding that it is great to have the support of financial institutions.

The benefit of having more residents naturalized on the Eastside, Lacy said, is it can increase people’s salaries, raise homeownership and boost civic engagement as people would be able to vote.

People like Khokhlova, who wants to be here and do something for her community.

“I really love this country,” she said.

Windows and Mirrors is a bimonthly column focused on telling the stories of people whose voices are not often heard. If you have something you want to say, contact editor Samantha Pak at