There was never any doubt Juana Alvarez’s 18- and 20-year-old American-born daughters would be taking part in the election this year. Alvarez did her best to see to that.
“I had two people I wanted to get registered and I registered them,” Alvarez, a 39-year-old housekeeper in Brooklyn who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a teenager, said through a translator.
For Alvarez and the estimated 11 million other immigrants living illegally in the U.S., this is a potentially crucial election, with Republican Donald Trump talking about mass deportations and a border wall and Democrat Hillary Clinton pledging to support immigration reform and protect President Barack Obama’s executive actions on behalf of immigrants.
Come Election Day, these immigrants will be watching from the sidelines, their future in the hands of others. Under the U.S. Constitution, only full citizens can vote; legal immigrants who are green card holders also are not allowed to cast a ballot.
Trump has spoken of fears of election fraud or that immigrants living illegally in the country might vote. More broadly, he has said all immigrants should play by the legal rules.
Alvarez and others like her say although they can’t vote, they have been taking part in get-out-the-vote efforts among citizens.
In places like New York, California, Arizona and Virginia, they have been knocking on doors and making telephone calls, registering people, urging them to go to the polls, and telling their stories in hopes of persuading voters to keep the interests of immigrants in mind when they go into the booth.
“For me, it’s important that those who can vote come out of the shadows and make their voices heard,” Alvarez said.
Isabel Medina, a 43-year-old from Los Angeles who has been in the country illegally for 20 years and has three sons, two born in the U.S., has worked phone banks and taken part in voter registration drives for U.S. citizens, making sure that “even though they’re frustrated, they are disappointed, they still realize it is really important, that they know the power that they have in their hands.”
She says she emphasized the need to vote for all the races, not just the presidency, and the importance of taking part in referendums and propositions.
Even though these immigrants can’t vote, their pre-Election Day efforts make a difference, said Karina Ruiz, 32, of Phoenix, who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico when she was 15 and is acting executive director of the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, an immigrant-advocacy group that has been doing get-out-the-vote work.
“It is making an impact because those people who wouldn’t vote otherwise, when they listen to my story and hear their vote does count and make a difference, they’re encouraged to participate and be my voice,” said Ruiz, who has a work permit and an exemption from deportation under Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. That policy was created by executive order, one that could be undone by any president in the future.
“I think to myself: I could just vote once, if I had the power to,” she said. But “if I can influence 50 to 60 people to go ahead and vote, that’s my voice multiplied by a whole lot.”
As for what will happen after Election Day, “the uncertainty, it is there, I don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Medina, who avoids talking about the election with her U.S.-born sons because she doesn’t want them to get scared that their parents might be deported. “I am worried, yes.”