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.