A Voice Beyond the Vote
Immigration has been catapulted to the front lines of the presidential race in recent months, thanks to a groundswell of grassroots organizing, mass mobilization by a charismatic movement of undocumented youth, and high profile media coverage of some of the immigrant rights movement’s most dramatic struggles (not to mention its ugliest opponents). Add to that the changing complexion of the electorate, with the expansion of Latinos as a major voting bloc, culture wars over politically conscious public education, and the nationwide right-wing backlash that has spawned critical civil rights debates over fair elections and voter suppression.
Here are some dispatches from the pre-election political fray. Though the election may influence the dialogue or the prospects for certain policies, these issues will continue to burn long after November 6, no matter who gets elected.
CultureStriker Jeff Biggers, a longtime chronicler of Arizona politics and author of State Out of the Union, blogs about the browning of the American electorate in ground zero of the immigration battle:
When 20-year Phoenix resident and businesswoman Maria Maqueada turned in her emergency ballot today at the Maricopa County Recorder’s Office, thanks to the assertive efforts of Citizens for a Better Arizona, one more vote was cast in what observers are already calling a record Latino vote in Arizona.
Whether such a grassroots surge in the Latino vote will be able to overcome out-of-state contributions and Republican hijinks, including the latest report today on misleading robocalls to Arizona Democrats on polling stations by Republican U.S. Senate candidate Jeff Flake, a determined network of Latino and community groups galvanized by citizens fed up with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious reign and the state’s SB 1070 “papers, please” immigration policy has already shifted the political landscape in tomorrow’s election — and beyond.
The reversal of the Arizonification of America is in full force.
Meanwhile, Latino youth have led grassroots get-out-the-vote efforts, hoping that the community members who are fortunate enough to have the vote will champion immigrants’ rights issues on their behalf at the ballot box. Feet in Two Worlds describes a statewide mobilization across Arizona that stemmed from the public disgust over Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s notorious cruelty toward immigrant communities:
Outrage over Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s crackdowns on undocumented workers has spurred an energetic grassroots movement to oust him. Called “Adios Arpaio” or “goodbye Arpaio,” the movement has attracted hundreds of young people to knock on doors and register new voters.
According to Fernandez, many of the youth who started out by protesting the SB 1070 law have now transformed their activism into “greater civic engagement to provoke change.”
Team Awesome began as a group of young people in Phoenix going door-to-door to register voters on behalf of Daniel Valenzuela, a Latino candidate for the Phoenix City Council. Following Valenzuela’s election last year the group has gone statewide, increasing its membership and backing Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Richard Carmona, who is in a tight race against the Republican candidate Congressman Jeff Flake.
The multimedia advocacy network Cuéntame has produced a series of videos highlighting the many ingenious ways conservative politicians have militated to restrict ballot access, and what voters can do to protect their civil rights.
In the long run, Latinos, including vast numbers of immigrants as well as “second-generation” kids, are destined to become a critical pillar of the electorate. But sadly, activists are coming to the realization that the next president, regardless of which candidate enters the White House (to varying degrees, both Obama and Romney have taken dismal, draconian positions on immigration policy), will face fierce resistance in Congress toward meaningful immigration reform. But Feet in Two Worlds producer John Rudolph predicts that the right-wing obstruction won’t last as long as the population, and eventually, the political arena, continue to diversify:
Whatever the election’s outcome, immigrants, whether they are Hispanic or Asian, are vitally important to the future of both political parties. More and more candidates from immigrant communities are running for office and the ranks of immigrant voters are growing dramatically in states across the country. These are trends that the next president can’t afford to ignore. My guess is he won’t.
Months, years, even a generation of protests and advocacy may be needed before the white-dominated political establishment wakes up to the inevitabilities of demography and history. For now, the question that lies immediately before immigrant communities is whether policy changes will come too late for those who are everyday threatened with deportation and separation from their loved ones. The countless youth who have campaigned tirelessly for the DREAM Act for years have been both inspired and profoundly disappointed by the Obama presidency. Having won a limited temporary reprieve, their struggle now is merely to stay put in the only country they’ve ever called home.
Meanwhile, the most stunning irony behind all this election drama, of course, is that much of the debate centers on people who are by definition shut out of the electorate–non-citizens, undocumented workers and their children–people who are denied everyday the benefits of citizenship in a country that where they’ve worked, raised families, or in many cases, spent nearly their entire lives. If the role of immigrants in electoral politics this year has contributed anything, it’s the realization that the vote itself is not the locus of political power or mass mobilization.
The activists who boldly traversed the country in the Undocubus knew that, as people without papers, neither mainstream presidential candidate had a good reason to pay attention to their protests as he made his political calculations on the campaign trail. And yet there they were in the streets, making themselves heard, visible, and impossible to ignore. To be present in the political system isn’t an issue of checking off a box; it’s putting your body on the line. The language of resistance is recognized universally and understood globally, and well outside the polls and the legislative chambers, it still comes through loud and clear.