Immigrants Are the (Not-So) Secret Weapon in the Race for President

By Thomas Kennedy

Knocking on a stranger's door and asking them to register to vote is a strange experience. In a diverse city like Miami where one can find someone from any nationality or political background behind that door, it can be both a rewarding experience and a challenging one. It can be frustrating to hear a person say that they feel so disenfranchised by the system that they don't feel the urgency to vote. On the other hand, I'm exhilarated as an elections canvasser when we talk and they change their minds.

I've worked in several voter registration campaigns in the past, and what is unique about this 2016 presidential race is that the apathy often at play is not a factor when I talk with potential voters. Latinos are feeling the urgency to cast a ballot like never before and it is because they oppose Donald Trump's bid for the White House in record numbers.

I've met the folks who will prevent a Donald Trump presidency. They are a powerful coalition composed of people from all walks of life with vastly different cultures and nationalities. I've worked with my fellow immigrants day after day as a community organizer in a massive voter registration campaign working to turn out voters. Regardless of their native country, these Americans are eager to become registered voters so they can make a difference in their communities.

These prospective voters, about 2.8 million Latinos, have been emboldened by one of the most bizarre elections ever seen in American history. Republican nominee Donald Trump has risen to the top of the party on a scorched earth campaign in which he has called for a ban on Muslims coming into the country and the forced deportation of 11 million undocumented immigrants from the country. Faced with this intense anti-immigrant rhetoric, people who have never considered voting before are now eager to do so.

I worked with the community outreach group New Florida Majority from February to April in a campaign to register 5,000 new voters in nine weeks. We went to Hispanic and Haitian neighborhoods in Miami with traditionally low voter turnout rates in an effort to connect with people and inform them about the issues affecting their communities. We knocked on doors, stood outside shopping centers, joined in popular events such as the iconic Calle 8 Festival in Little Havana and visited Hispanic and Creole restaurants.

It was a very strange experience helping to empower people so they can have a voice through the ballot when I'm excluded from that privilege.

I came to this country on a tourist visa with my parents and overstayed it, effectively rendering me without legal status for 11 years. I felt pride in helping people exercise their right to vote, but at times I also felt a mix of jealousy and frustration.

I know the power of voting and am eager to cast my first vote, but I never imagined that at age 25, I would still not have done so. It was difficult and frustrating to live here as an undocumented resident, but it also taught me the necessity for strong civic engagement and our individual responsibility to stand up for our communities. Growing up, I always lived with fear that a wrong choice would land me in police custody and possible deportation. I was paranoid that sharing my undocumented status with the wrong person could lead to being reported to ICE, and possible deported and ripped away from my family and friends. I watched my parents drive to work every day with the fear that a simple traffic stop could lead to their arrest for driving without a license.

As I registered new voters, I found that I was not alone. I was inspired talking to community members who were eager to demand the dignity and respect that has been denied to them despite their years of hard work. Natalia Jaramillo comes to mind, a Latina from Colombia who had previously been unable to become a citizen because it was so expensive and who now is eligible to vote for the first time. She told me that she was not wasting the opportunity to vote on behalf of those in her community who could not and who, like her, were disgusted by the politicians that disrespected the contributions of Latinos in this country.

I remember speaking to Johanna Shemesh from Brazil, who told me that as a woman she had a responsibility to stand up for her community against the racism and hatred of Donald Trump, whose anti-women policies would hurt her reproductive rights.

Trump's rhetoric last June was another hateful notch in what has been a long history of discrimination and xenophobia against immigrants in this country. Although I acquired residency through marriage in 2011, my parents are still living in the U.S. undocumented and seeing this racist xenophobe in my television screen refer to Mexican immigrants in this country as killers and rapists filled me with indignation. The hateful rhetoric currently at the forefront of the Republican party drove me to do as much as I possibly could to stop this man from ever becoming president.

Florida has voted for Democratic President Obama in the past two elections and it appears that the Republican party has not learned that disregarding the Hispanic vote is a losing strategy that will guarantee defeat in this crucial swing state where 23 percent of the population is Hispanic. We hit our target goal of 5,000 new registered voters at the end of the nine weeks, and we will continue to hit the streets to turn out voters until the Florida registration deadline 29 days before the November 8th election.

As an immigrant youth (and I know that there are thousands who feel as I do), I will never forget the way my family was treated during these difficult years. A couple of weeks ago, I applied for my citizenship after spending five years as a permanent resident, making it highly likely that I will get to cast my first vote ever in this election. Myself and others who experienced the hatred and xenophobia directed at our hard working community will always remember who our friends were and who weren't. We'll vote accordingly.

Thomas Kennedy is a writing fellow for the Center for Community Change Action.