From the Streets to the Polls

From the Streets to the Polls

Young, US-born Hispanics who took to the streets to push for immigrant rights are hoping to become a potent political force in the midterm elections and beyond.


On March 10 Germain Castellanos, 23, took to the streets of Chicago in defense of his family and friends. Castellanos, a teacher, community volunteer and son of Mexican immigrants, is a US citizen: free to work without fear of being discovered, free to vote his discontent. But on March 10, before most Americans had heard of HR 4437, a proposal introduced by Wisconsin Republican Representative James Sensenbrenner to make felons of undocumented immigrants, Castellanos marched alongside Chicago’s immigrant community. “My parents risked a lot for me to be here, to be a citizen,” he explains. “To be indifferent is not acceptable.”

After Chicago, the image of tightly organized immigrant marches became common, but for Castellanos, who has been a community organizer for years, that spring day was special. “To see everyone behind one issue,” he says and then pauses. “Only in the movies–only in the civil rights movies.”

Pundits may decry the political disengagement and cynicism of the Jon Stewart generation, but students, young workers and young families have played a major role in mobilizing immigrant communities to become politically engaged. Across the country, they led street mobilizations, school walkouts and teach-ins. As one 16-year-old who walked out of school in Santa Ana, California, told the Los Angeles Times, “We don’t want to just read about democracy in our textbooks. We want to experience it firsthand.”

Now young organizers are taking their influence from the streets to the polls. In Chicago Castellanos and eighteen other young fellows are among those recruiting the US-born children of immigrants to vote with the help of the We Are America Alliance. In July We Are America, a coalition of national and community-based immigrant-rights groups, kicked off a nationwide campaign to register 1 million voters for the midterm elections. In May the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project launched a $1 million voter-registration and get-out-the-vote campaign targeting the sons and daughters of immigrants. And on August 1 syndicated radio DJ Renan Almendarez Coello, known as “El Cucuy,” started a two-week bus tour from San Francisco to Washington, DC, to help get 1 million new voters registered by November.

Democrats and Republicans may dismiss young voters as disengaged and potential no-shows at the polls, but these groups are counting on the young US-born children of immigrants to make a difference starting this November–and even more so in 2008.

A recent report by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and the Center for Community Change puts the number of potential young voters in perspective:

§ Nearly 2 million US-born children of immigrants, 18-24, are not yet registered to vote.

§ Nearly 2 million US-born children of immigrants, 18-24, are registered to vote.

§ More than 1 million additional US-born children of immigrants will be eligible to vote by 2008.

§ In California alone there are 1 million US-born children of immigrants ages 18-24 who, if mobilized, could change the course of the 2006 midterm elections. Adding them to the population of legal immigrants of all ages would create a nationwide bloc of more than 14 million potential voters.

Organizers are aware of the challenge they face: Young people vote at lower rates than the rest of the country; Latinos vote at lower rates than blacks and whites; among 18- to 29-year-old Asians, voter participation has fallen in recent years. But organizers are also hopeful. First, they say, statistics don’t paint a complete picture, since the voting habits of the children of immigrants aren’t well documented. Certainly not all Latinos or Asians are immigrants or even the children of immigrants–nevertheless, these two groups showed up in big numbers at immigration marches.

Among many organizers, the best strategy is to get young people talking to their peers; by recruiting and encouraging them to vote, the young people in the street at immigration marches will translate into victories on election day. Studies show that a young person asking a peer to vote raises the likelihood of turnout by 8 to 12 percent.

In Massachusetts, the Student Immigrant Movement (SIM) has allied with the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) in recent months with the goal of registering 7,000 US-born children of immigrants by the midterm elections. SIM is one of several organizations nationwide created to push for the passage of the DREAM Act–a bipartisan bill introduced in the Senate to allow immigrant students to pay in-state tuition for college.

Carlos Santos, SIM’s 20-year-old co-founder, says the immigration marches made him optimistic about the sometimes-daunting prospect of galvanizing young voters. “We’re going to take over the streets, not marching, but doing voter registration,” he says. SIM and MIRA are working strategically to target races where they can make a difference.

Santos is clear that the goal is to urge voters to support candidates who defend immigrant rights–but he is less clear about who those candidates are. While many young organizers are optimistic about their ability to get their peers to the polls, they’re not so positive about who they’ll vote for. In Massachusetts, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Reilly has said he would consider deputizing state troopers to enforce federal immigration laws–a plan most organizers find repugnant.

While Republicans were the dominant force behing HR 4437, not all Democrats are strong advocates of immigrant rights, say organizers. Several Senate campaigns provide an example: In Arizona, Democrat Jim Pederson campaign website declares that “illegal immigration is endangering out security, putting a huge burden on our communities’ schools and hospitals.” In Missouri, Democrat Claire McCaskill includes building border fences as part of her immigration strategy. In Montana, Matt McKenna, spokesman for Jon Tester, indicates the Democratic candidate “would not offer amnesty to illegal immigrants.”

Without clear-cut political heroes, young activists might have a difficult time getting their peers to the polls. Some organizers fear that without a strong showing this November, the immigrant rights movement will loose momentum. But newly minted young activists say their organizations will provide a foundation for future efforts–in and out of electoral politics.

“It’s exciting,” says Castellanos. “It’s history going on again.”

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