At first, Angelica Guzman was taken aback by some of the replies she got when she made calls about the election.
“I’m too busy to vote,” one person told her.
“I just don’t think my vote will count,” another said.
Now Guzman is ready with a response: “I’m somebody who can’t vote. And your vote counts for me.”
These days, it’s a message she’s been spreading a lot in her free time. The 29-year-old office manager in Salt Lake City, Utah, has been working the phones with other young undocumented immigrants, racing to reach voters in the final sprint to Tuesday’s election.
Some, like Guzman, are currently protected from deportation by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Others don’t qualify for those protections because the Trump administration, which has tried to end the program, isn’t accepting new applications for it. All of them feel they have a lot on the line in this election, even though they can’t cast a ballot.
In an election where 1 in 10 eligible voters is an immigrant, and where the Latino electorate could play a decisive role in several battleground states, immigrant advocates see a window of opportunity to push for the changes they want to see in Washington and across the country.
“It’s really important to me to be in this fight,” Guzman says. “We understand a little bit clearer than anybody what’s at stake.”
A surge in civic engagement
More than 94% of DACA recipients said in a recent survey that they planned to “use their voice to encourage family members or friends who are eligible to vote to do so,” and almost half of respondents said they’d become more politically active.
Those are surprisingly high numbers, says Tom Wong, an associate professor of political science at the University of California at San Diego and co-author of a report on the survey.
Normally, Wong said, you’d expect the hundreds of thousands of undocumented youth who received deportation protections and work permits as part of DACA to be more focused on living their lives than on civic engagement.
“We wouldn’t expect them to be out there trying to mobilize voters,” says Wong, who heads the university’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center.
This year, he says, something is different.
“Something is going on about this election in particular that is leading those who weren’t necessarily more engaged politically post-DACA to see November 3 as an important moment not to sit out,” Wong says.
President Trump has sent mixed and misleading messages on DACA, suggesting he’s open to making a deal to help young undocumented immigrants while at the same trying to end the program that’s protected many of them.
Guzman says the Trump administration’s actions have spoken loud and clear – and its intensifying immigration crackdowns have inspired her and others to get more involved in political activism than ever before.
“It just speaks to the urgency of the situation,” she says.
And it’s not only DACA recipients, but also members of the larger undocumented immigrant community, who are speaking out and trying to get voters to head to the polls.
“Usually undocumented immigrants think that because we do not have the privilege to vote, that means that we just completely shouldn’t engage at all. I think the opposite,” says Alex Ortega, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant who’s been leading a get-out-the-vote campaign targeting Latinx voters in Colorado.
“I think we are the ones who carry the stories that can actually persuade people or educate them on some of the issues that really impact our daily life.”
How the pandemic has reshaped efforts to get out the vote
One of the major issues – the coronavirus pandemic – has also forced organizers of these get-out-the-vote efforts to shift gears.
“It has impacted our communities disproportionately,” says Cristina Jimenez, co-founder of the United We Dream Action PAC. “Many of our leaders who are volunteering…their family members have gotten sick or lost their jobs because of the pandemic.”
So Jimenez and other leaders of the organization decided its “Here to Stay Squad” – a volunteer team of youth, many of whom are undocumented – wouldn’t be canvassing in person this year as they’d originally planned.
Instead, they’re meeting up remotely and focusing their campaign on phone- and text-banking.
But still, she says, the group has found ways to foster community and energize volunteers. Guest speakers like former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have dropped by on Zoom to encourage them. And volunteers listen to music by Lizzo, Cardi B and Bad Bunny on shared playlists to boost their spirits. On the weekends, when some of their parents join in the phone- and text-banking efforts, classic Mexican ranchera songs are also in the mix.
“Because it’s been so debilitating to be at the center of so many attacks from this administration, we value the importance of bringing joy to the work that we’re doing,” Jimenez says.
And once they get voters on the phone, they value the importance of sharing their stories.
When Jimenez reaches a voter on the phone, she shares her experience as a new US citizen who’s voting for the first time after years of being undocumented.
“I say, ‘I know my vote is the only way to protect my brother from deportation and other people from family separation and all these other horrific things that are happening to immigrants.’”
What volunteers are hearing from voters
Karla, an 18-year-old college freshman in Virginia who’s volunteering in the “Here to Stay Squad,” says she felt powerless as many of her friends registered to vote for the first time this year. But reaching out to voters, she says, has given her a sense that she’s doing her part. And seeing their responses has been eye-opening.
“A lot of people didn’t know pretty basic things like their polling place, how to get a ballot if they’re not going to go in person – information that’s really crucial to them exercising their right to vote,” says Karla, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she’s undocumented.
“That made it clear how important it is to do this kind of work, because there are people who don’t have that information. And if we assume they do, and they don’t, that’s one less vote that we’re going to get that could potentially change everything.”
Ortega, who’s leading a campaign dubbed “Our Barrio Votes” in Colorado’s Latinx communities, says his team often has to convince skeptical voters that it’s worth their while to go to the polls.
“We come from countries where we think elections are corrupt. Some people don’t want to participate because they think their vote doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’re letting them know it’s not the same. They shouldn’t let past experiences stop them.”
The final days before the election have been exhausting, Ortega says, but the campaign has also given him hope.
No matter who wins on Tuesday, Ortega says, immigrant youth will stick together and keep fighting.
And someday, they may have the chance to vote, too.