The naturalization ceremony had not yet finished Friday when 28 volunteers fanned out across the plaza outside of Turner Field, clipboards and smiles at the ready.
What started as a trickle became a flood: families pouring out of the stadium gates after taking an oath of citizenship and becoming new Americans.
Then the volunteers offered them their first taste of this new freedom: a registration form in their new country giving them the right to vote.
“This nation gave me a lot of things and I think it’s time to give back,” said Venezuala-born Carolina Oporto, who was one of the first to sign up. “I’m so, so proud to be a part of this country.”
With small U.S. flags clutched in hands or sticking out of suit jackets, hundreds followed her in what served as an exclamation point for a special voter registration drive. And there was no bigger demonstration of that effort than Friday, when the Atlanta Braves — in a nod to hometown hero Hank Aaron — hosted 755 people and their loved ones in what was expected to be the largest Constitution Day naturalization ceremony in the Southeast U.S.
“We noticed there was a problem with some new Americans being put on the voting rolls,” said League of Women Voters of Georgia President Elizabeth Poythress, who partnered with several community advocacy groups and the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services in what’s officially been dubbed the “New Americans” project.
Over the past three years, the project has helped register more than 15,000 newly minted citizens. Volunteers have attended hundreds of naturalization ceremonies and, after immigrants were sworn in, helped the new citizens make copies of their naturalization forms that are then sealed into an envelope along with their completed voter registration forms and mailed to local election offices.
It’s a deceptively simple act but one that Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said helped avoid a “gauntlet” of bureaucracy that some advocates felt has hindered access to registration.
Registration information in local elections offices, for example, may be provided only in English, he said, a hurdle for those who have not yet mastered the language.
Among those volunteering Friday for the project were speakers of Spanish, Korean and Arabic, among other languages.
The state requires an exact match on registration forms — down to an apostrophe or hyphen — with information within state and federal databases, a practice that is now subject to a federal lawsuit. Advocates said some applicants new to the system who get flagged for a problem may not understand how to fix it.
Elections officials, too, may need more details than what is written on a mailed-in registration form — that’s in part why copies of naturalization papers, which include social security numbers, are included in the project’s mailings.
On Friday, Denise Frazier, Citizenship and Immigration Services district director, said it was important to get new citizens registered to vote, adding that it was a fundamental right that came with taking the oath of allegiance.
And for many of those who took part in the ceremony, it also seemed to be something they considered a responsibility: to become first-time voters in their adopted country.
The group included people from 104 countries (Mexico was the most heavily represented). They got a hearty welcome from Atlanta Braves Vice Chairman John Schuerholz, who before the ceremony had looked up at the crowd from the field and called it “just a momentous day for these folks who’ve taken this journey.”
The atmosphere was festive: Balloons, flowers, hugs and a few tears. While a count of registrants wasn’t immediately available, Poythress said about 60 percent of those sworn in this year have been registering.
“I have a right to vote now,” said Jamaican-born Robert Williams, who was among those standing in line to register Friday. “It’s important. Words can’t explain.”
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