Last month, Donald Trump nodded along as Art Del Cueto, a representative of a Border Patrol officer union that had endorsed the candidate, described undocumented immigrants flooding across the border to vote illegally. This was a continuation of the general Trumpian anxiety about brown people coming from afar to damage America, but it also reflected a specific fear: Almost 60 percent of Republicans believe that illegal immigrants vote en masse, though there's no evidence of that.
Undocumented immigrants have been engaging in the election in another way, though: They are registering and encouraging citizens to vote, even though they can't do so themselves. Given the stakes—with Trump promising to deport millions of them by force—it's not surprising that they're as engaged as they possibly can be.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) utilized the collective power of undocumented immigrants to register voters through a program called the New Americans Democracy Project. About 23 young fellows, several of whom are undocumented but have DACA permits allowing them to stay and work in the country, worked in and around Chicago in high-density immigrant neighborhood that typically don't vote in large numbers. (These permits are the result of executive action taken by the Obama administration allowing undocumented immigrants brought to the country as children to remain.) They registered those who could vote, and educated the community in an attempt to get them more engaged.
Celina Villanueva oversees this program as the ICIRR's civic engagement manager. We spoke in a sunlit corner outside the cafeteria at Chicago's Little Village Lawndale High School, where the organization was throwing a Halloween-themed early voting festival. She explained that ICIRR is firmly invested in the power of the immigrant community because "in order for us to see legislation like immigration reform—which we desperately need—we really need our people to be registered, to get out to vote, but also to advocate for themselves." The fellows' immigration status and background give them "a really profound understanding of the communities that they're working in, but also a huge desire to really see some action."
One undocumented ICIRR fellow, Hector Farias, registered people to vote in Chicago for two months (the last day to register in Illinois was October 23). Through the process, he's learned that "a lot of people that could vote aren't going out to vote." He hoped to change that, and to convey to voters that they have a responsibility for those who can't vote. Another fellow, Cristina (she didn't give her last name, citing the immigration status of family members), decided to help register voters because like Farias, she didn't want to sit back and do nothing.
That urge is common to undocumented immigrants across the country. Born in Mexico, Cesar Mata moved to America after his father lost his small factory and now lives in Birmingham, Alabama. The 38-year-old works with Alabama Vota, part of the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice. In a statement, he explained that when speaking to potential voters, he asks them to "make sure to vote, and to do it for me as well as for many others that like me do not have that privilege." He said this encourages others, because "for many new voters, just knowing that an undocumented immigrant is doing work to get them to vote is a motivation to use their privilege."
Unsurprisingly given their status in the country, undocumented immigrants tend not to be politically active. A 2012 Pew Research Center survey showed that 27 percent of unauthorized Latino immigrants don't identify with either party. But the longer people live in America, the more its politics seeps into them. Pew found that while only 38 percent of Hispanic immigrants who have been in the country for less than 15 years identify with a major party, that goes up to 63 percent for Hispanic immigrants who have been in the country for 15 years or more. (Far more Hispanic immigrants, both documented and undocumented, identify as Democrats than as Republicans.)
Geraldo Cadava, a professor at Northwestern University who studies history and Latinos in the US, predicts that this election could be different, though. He said over email that we could see increased voter turnout from Hispanics, "both because Hillary Clinton has done well with Hispanics her whole career, and because they'll do anything they can to keep Donald Trump from becoming president." As a result, he said, Hispanics are registering in record numbers, "and they report being more enthusiastic about—and, therefore, more likely to vote in—this election than they were in 2008 and 2012."
As the national civic engagement Coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, Cristian Avila has led programs around the country helping people, particularly Latinos, get to the polls. He told me over email that he's afraid for his undocumented family members constantly, because "deportations for my family aren't just a headline but a reality we live day to day." And while Avila can live and work in the US under DACA, there is little hope he'll become a citizen—meaning he has no chance to vote. "The way the laws are written I don't have a pathway to citizenship as of right now," he explained. "I'm hoping this changes the day we pass immigration reform."
One of the few ways he can take part is by encouraging others to vote with his needs in mind. He believes that "building political power among Latinos will be the only way to get an immigration reform passed, and free millions of families like mine of the fear of deportation."
This underscores the stakes of the debate for immigrants like Avila and Farias—without some sort of reform, people they love could be forced to leave the country, their lives uprooted. For that reason, their efforts will continue after the last ballot is cast.
"Our work doesn't just end with people getting out to vote," Villanueva explained. It will continue because "the truth of the matter is, immigration reform has a chance to happen depending on who the winner of the presidential election is."
Nandita Raghuram is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer.