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Exercising Ballot Power to Push Back Attacks on Immigrant Communities

The message has never been clearer: Become a citizen and then vote… before it’s too late.
 
 
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“Our Vote is Power… Our Vote is Power,” chant the hundreds of immigrants, elected officials, and leaders in the fight for immigration reform who gathered to celebrate the national “New Americans Democracy Day” ( http://icirr.org/node/2882) this past Saturday. In a sweaty auditorium on Chicago’s Northwest side, an audience of over 300 listens as Senator Dick Durbin and Congresswoman Jan Schakowsky speak about their efforts to pass immigration reform. Elected officials from both parties and community leaders share the stage and the excitement.

The diverse crowd fans themselves between cheers with posters that bear several dozens of logos- a reminder of the many non-partisan, community organizations that will be working around-the-clock to turn out the immigrant vote this fall. In a nearby classroom, dozens of South Asian, South American, and Eastern European immigrants fill out the final paperwork to become citizens. Local Spanish and Polish TV and bus ads around the city ask the simple question, “What are you waiting for?”

The message has never been clearer: Become a citizen and vote… before it’s too late.

As dramatic as it sounds, the message resonates with immigrants throughout Chicago and beyond. Communities across the country feel that they are under attack by TV and radio pundits, anti-immigrant ordinances, and a crescendo of deportation-only enforcement policy that is being heralded by recognized hate groups and local officials alike as the easy fix for a severely broken immigration system. Immigrant communities are feeling the strain more and more- and more and more, they are responding. They are organizing themselves to become citizens, registering those who already are citizens, and turning out the immigrant vote.

In Chicago, the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights and its partners in the State are gearing up to register 20,000 new American citizens and mobilize 60,000 immigrant voters to the polls in November. Groups in the audience from Colorado to Mississippi were getting ready to go back home and do the same.

Why all this work?

Our already-ailing immigration system has only deteriorated since the collapse of comprehensive reform a year ago. The large-scale raids that target immigrant workers while abusive employers get off scot-free are exhibit A. The dozens of unaccounted-for deaths of immigrant men and women in privately-traded detention facilities are exhibit B. Exhibit C: the unending gridlock that forces too many to wait decades to bring loved ones to the US or to become citizens themselves- despite the skyrocketing cost of citizenship.

So what’s the answer?

Simple: the Immigrant Vote, which can no longer being taken for granted. Who are immigrant voters? New citizens and the American-born children and grandchildren of immigrants. Latinos make up the largest demographic within the immigrant vote and have been the most frequent targets of racism and fear in this debate.

In fact, the immigrant vote is being taken more seriously than the noisy minority that aimed to kill the McCain-Kennedy comprehensive immigration reform bill. Their ability to push mountains of calls and faxes into Senators’ offices against what they toxically and unilaterally branded ‘Amnesty' got a lot of attention at the time, but has grown tiresome.

Why the shift?

Again and again, the hoot and holler of the anti-immigrant movement has failed to deliver real results at the ballot-box. Simultaneous to Democracy Day, presidential hopefuls John McCain and Barack Obama stood before the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), promising to deliver humane immigration reform if elected. This was a clear “sombrero-tip” to the growing voting power of Latinos in this country and to the changing face of the immigration debate.

And while McCain has shifted his stance on his own reform bill since January it is still remarkable that both of the main Presidential candidates now stand by some version of comprehensive immigration reform. Latinos and immigrant communities across the nation will be watching closely to see where the pendulum of McCain’s immigration stance swings.

More troubling than McCain's flip-flopping, perhaps, is the fact that a candidate for President even has to remind the American public that immigrants are still “God’s children,” as McCain did on Saturday at the NALEO conference. This shows just how harsh and dehumanizing the attack on these communities has been.

Just yesterday, the conservative Illinois Review attacked Democracy Day with the conspiracy theory that it encouraged "turning out illegal voters to steal an election." This is yet another way that political pundits continue to demonize all immigrants in this country. It is absurd to think that undocumented men and women would knowingly risk deportation from the place that they've struggled so hard to make a life for themselves and their families in to vote in the election.

What's more absurd is that the immigrant vote is made up of naturalized citizens, first and second generation Americans, and the children of immigrants who grew up watching Sesame Street. It is about as American as apple pie- and conspiracy theories like this one show just how far anti-immigrant groups will go to capitalize on this climate of fear.

So here's the challenge:

Will either candidate, if elected, reform our dysfunctional immigration system? Will they make sure that Homeland Security, and ICE in particular, is held accountable for the conditions of immigrant detainees in their custody? Will either candidate work toward family reunification, instead of ripping families apart?

These are the questions that many immigrant communities are asking themselves, as they turn up the heat to turn out the vote in November.

As leaders of a traditional Korean drumming group top off New Americans Democracy Day with a rousing rendition of “Si Se Puede,” those waiting to become citizens in the room adjacent looked on.

Up for grabs: the growing, newly-organized immigrant vote.
At stake: the kind of America we all want to live in.

Jackie Mahendra is in charge of E-Advocacy with the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights .

 
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