On Sept. 5, 2017, the Trump administration announced the end of a program that protects undocumented immigrants who arrived as children, known as DACA and started by the Obama administration in 2012.
That date was crucial for Maria, a domestic worker and native of Argentina who lives in Miami-Dade and has two children, 21 and 23 years old, who are among the 800,000 beneficiaries of DACA.
“That Sept. 5 I said, ‘I have to do something. I have to contribute my two cents for the change I want to see,” said Maria, who asked to be identified only by her first name because she’s undocumented. “There’s a big risk for us. The risk of losing my children’s education, the house, everything we have built here.”
That’s how Maria, who arrived on a tourist visa in 2000 and overstayed it to settle in Miami because of an economic crisis in Argentina, wound up working to turn out the vote in the midterm elections.
Maria cannot vote, but has knocked on dozens of doors around Miami to urge those who can to vote.
She’s part of a growing number of people who cannot vote because they are undocumented or green card holders but are hitting the streets to urge voters to cast their ballots.
Their goal is to persuade voters to support candidates who promise to protect immigrants, because they understand that their future in this country is at risk and depends on those votes. Although President Donald Trump is not on the ballot, they are working to turn the midterm elections into a referendum on presidential policies and rhetoric they view as anti-immigrant.
“It’s something we have seen before, people who cannot vote working to get out the vote. But this year, we’re seeing impressive numbers,” said Andrea Cristina Mercado, executive director of New Florida Majority, which works to increase electoral participation among communities of color.
“And it’s not just a referendum, because we also have the opportunity to win the Senate and the House. If we want to stop Trump we have to win one of the two,” said Mercado. “So this is a referendum with very serious political consequences.”
In previous years, undocumented immigrants have joined campaigns to get out the vote. But they have mostly been so-called Dreamers who were brought to the United States as children, studied in U.S. schools and are more politically savvy.
Many of them have become prominent voices in the national conversation on immigration. Several worked in the Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton campaigns and others support moderate Republican members of Congress.
But this election season it’s not just the Dreamers pitching in. It includes their parents, aunts, uncles and neighbors, people who clean homes or schools or take care of the elderly and the sick. Some don’t speak English very well and are still learning how the U.S. electoral system works.
Immigration a polarizing issue
One Republican political analyst said the participation of immigrants who are undocumented in electoral campaigns, although valuable as a human resource, could turn into a double-edged sword.
“Before, the most polarizing issues for voters were social issues such as abortion, gun control and gay marriage. In the current political climate, the most polarizing issue is immigration,” said Jesse Manzano-Plazas, a Miami Republican consultant and political analyst.
“There may be people who don’t like that an undocumented person is trying to influence elections in this country. That’s where they have to be very careful with their message,” Manzano-Plazas added. “It’s an advantage only if it’s handled in an effective way.”
He added that the strategy by progressive groups is nevertheless a “great investment in the long run” to reach a sector of the population that Republicans have not been able to reach.
“Many of these people, the ones who are permanent residents, will become voters, and I don’t think that Donald Trump is right now an inspiration for an immigrant and future voter,” he added.
For Manzano-Plazas, the Republican Party in Miami-Dade does not have the infrastructure of progressive groups, such as grassroots organizations and labor unions.
“I believe the Republican Party here in Miami-Dade has fallen short on that aspect,” he said. “The population of South Florida has become much more diverse, with Colombians, Venezuelans, Central Americans, and we have not been able to reach that community even though they sometimes share Republican values.”
A better structure
After Trump’s election in 2016, organizations such as the nonprofits United We Dream and the National Domestic Workers Alliance created parallel groups that can raise funds and work on electoral campaigns.
However, because of the type of nonprofits they are, some of these groups can only promote issues, not necessarily candidates.
María, the Argentine immigrant, has walked Miami streets for three months to ask voters’ support for Amendment 4, which would restore the right to vote to Florida residents who have been convicted of crimes and completed their sentences. Those convicted of murder and sex crimes are excluded.
María, who works as a volunteer, said that’s an issue close to her heart.
“I cannot vote because of my status in this country, but there are 1.5 million people [in Florida] who were born in this country, already paid their debt to society and are not allowed to vote,” she said as she knocked on doors in Buena Vista, an upper middle class neighborhood of Miami. “They also cannot express themselves. They are oppressed.”
Other groups, such as labor unions, can legally endorse candidates and ask voters to support them.
On a recent afternoon, about 20 people at the Allapattah office of Chapter 32BJ of the Service Employees International Union were calling voters on a list provided by the organization.
“Hello. This is Ana Yury, from the union. Have you voted already?” repeated one of the callers again and again.
Ana Yury Muñoz is a Nicaraguan immigrant and permanent U.S. resident who works as a janitor at the University of Miami. Although she’s been a member of the labor union for many years, it’s the first time she has worked in an election.
She’s doing it for her community, she said.
“I don’t have immigration problems,” said Muñoz, 33. But I have friends and neighbors who have been detained by ICE, people with TPS (Temporary Protected Status) that he (Trump) wants to deport.”
Anxiety among the Latino population has increased since Trump won the presidency, suggests a Pew Research Center national survey conducted between July and September 2018.
Half of Latinos polled said their situation in the U.S. has worsened in the past year, an increase from 32 percent who said the same, weeks after Trump was elected president. 49 percent said they have “serious concerns” about their place in American society, according to the Pew report. And 55 percent said they are worried that they, a family member or a friend could be deported.
The Trump administration has announced the end of TPS for citizens of Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and other countries. Many TPS holders live in South Florida. The Trump order has been challenged in court, but if the government wins, the immigrants could be deported.
Muñoz’s labor union is urging voters to support Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum, who has opposed crackdowns on immigrants, and Amendment 4.
Muñoz said working on the elections — some hours as a volunteer and others paid under the union contract — helped to educate her as a future voter.
“I did not understand anything about that, the amendments, the midterm elections, Florida and federal senators,” she said. “Now I understand the importance of each election, not just for president, and how it affects the life of many people.”
Muñoz has called dozens of people and believes she has managed to persuade “a few” to cast their ballots.
She hopes her efforts are reflected in the results from Tuesday’s elections.
But Manzano-Plazas, the Republican political analyst, said that’s where his party has been more efficient.
Florida has more than 13.2 million voters registered for Tuesday’s elections. About 4.9 million are registered as Democrats, 4.6 million as Republicans and 3.5 million are independent. But the latest reports show more Republicans have cast ballots during early voting.
“For getting out the vote, the Republicans may have a much more efficient mechanism,” said Manzano-Plazas. “Because even though there are fewer registered Republicans in Florida, more have voted, so far.”
This story has been updated to reflect that Maria is not paid a stipend and works as a volunteer.