Democratic concerns that President Donald Trump’s tough immigration policies might keep immigrants from voting may be unfounded.
Activists working with immigrant voters say a “climate of fear” — stoked by rising deportation arrests, the failure of Congress and Trump to strike a deal on DACA and his push for a border wall with Mexico — is stirring greater interest in their voter outreach efforts for the upcoming midterm elections.
Democrats, counting on a wave of anti-Trump sentiment to help them to regain control of Congress and pick up state legislative and gubernatorial seats, say they’re worried that Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric could lead Hispanics, Muslims, Asians and other immigrant voters to stay home on Election Day, especially those with undocumented family members.
“Trump’s hateful agenda, including his ‘wall’ and the proposed Census citizenship question, is rife with flagrant attempts to scare immigrant communities away from voting,”Democratic National Committee spokesman Brian Gabriel said. “Whether it’s through his now-defunct voter fraud commission or his anti-immigrant policies, he continues to marginalize minority communities across the country.”
But rather than suppressing their political activity, organizations say the policies are creating a groundswell of energy that could spur greater turnout among voters who feel targeted and under siege.
Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said Trump administration policies that try “to push the immigrant population further underground” are actually mobilizing Hispanic voters.
“It’s bringing our community together. We’ve seen an uptick in interest in the 2018 elections,” Gonzalez said of his group’s voter registration efforts.
“Given the attacks that we’re seeing, I think that Latino voters are really looking at electing a Congress to be a check on an administration that has put a target on the Latino community.”
Terry Ao Minnis, director of Census and voting programs at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said she’s seeing more candidate filings and higher voter participation rates among Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, the fastest growing minority group in the country.
“One way to resist is to make yourself heard, whether that’s by voting or by being counted (in the Census). That’s a way to make your presence known, to be visible,” Minnis said.
Turnout in midterms is historically lower than in presidential election years, and minority turnout rates reflect that.
In the 2014 midterms, the turnout rate was 41.9 percent overall, the lowest since 1978, according to the Census Bureau. The voting rate for both Hispanics and Asians was roughly 27 percent.
Some Muslim voters are also being moved to action.
Mohamed Alyajouri, a Muslim immigrant from Yemen who lives in Beaverton, Oregon, said he ran for the board of trustees at Portland Community College after Trump signed an executive order banning refugees from Yemen and other majority-Muslim nations in January 2017. The directive has been tied up in court ever since.
Alyajouri, 38, who won the uncontested seat, said his candidacy was a way to protest Trump’s immigration policies by increasing his own civic engagement.
“It stands against everything I believe about this country, and how I’ve been all my life, to all of a sudden be in the shadows,” Alyajouri said. “American Muslims and Arab Americans are part of the system as well. We’re not just immigrants who are on the sidelines anymore. We do care about this country as much, if not more than most people.”
Of 3.7 million Arab Americans, 35 percent are Muslims, according to the Arab American Institute, which works to increase the political participation of Arab Americans. American Muslims, however, were the least likely faith group to cast a ballot in 2016 despite many get-out-the-vote efforts, according to a 2017 poll by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
Berry said “Yalla Vote,” her organization’s year-round voter outreach effort, has seen higher levels of interest and excitement this year, even though some newer Arab voters may choose to avoid political activity in the current environment.
“I get that,” Berry said. “I get the instinct to sort of turn inward. I get the instinct to try to protect one’s self in these situations. It’s reasonable for people to be cautious about this. To me, that places the onus on institutions like ours to make sure that people know we can’t fix these problems without the direct participation of their vote.”
With that sentiment in mind, Democrats plan to step up their outreach to minority and immigrant voters ahead of the election.
Minnis said the state of alarm among immigrant and minority groups offers an opportunity for Democrats and Republicans to reach out to Asian American voters who aren’t heavily linked to either major party.
Despite their population gains, Minnis said polling shows 72 percent of Asian Americans have never been contacted by a representative of the Republican Party and 62 percent had never been contacted by the Democratic Party.
The Republican National Committee, although shunning so-called “identity politics,” also promises continued engagement at the local level to reach voters from all racial, ethnic and demographic communities.
“Under Chairman (Rona) McDaniel’s leadership, the RNC is not leaving a single vote unturned,” RNC spokeswoman Cassie Smedile said in a statement. “We are as committed as ever to involving a diverse and wide-ranging group of people in the electoral process and engaging with them on the issues that are uniquely important to individual communities.”
Democrats have launched a national “IWillVote” initiative to contact 50 million voters before the midterm elections in November.
The effort includes a “Commit to Vote” campaign that will target first-time and sporadic voters, minority voters and rural and millennial voters. These voters will be asked, through social media platforms and commit-to-vote cards, to pledge to cast a ballot this year. Before the election, they’ll be reminded of their commitment, in hopes of increasing their likelihood of voting.
“Since Trump’s election, we have seen enthusiasm for Democrats manifest itself as win after win across the country, with 39 state legislative seats already flipping from red to blue,” Gabriel’s statement said. “Through programs like IWillVote, we’re continuing to transform this grassroots energy into votes at the ballot box.”
With low turnout in midterms elections, neither party can afford to ignore any votes, particularly Hispanic voters, whose turnout in four heavily Hispanic counties in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border hovered around 20.6 percent, according to figures from the secretary of state’s office.
"All of the conversations that are happening here in Congress around targeting of immigrants, around targeting people of color as a whole, will have a consequence," said Rep. Norma Torres, D-Calif., whose district is 70 percent Hispanic and includes many first-generation U.S. citizens from Mexico.
On the Texas-Mexico border, Alberto Morales said he’s already seeing lower-than-usual interest in the upcoming election among the mostly Hispanic voters he works to register.
Morales, executive director of the Advocacy Alliance Center of Texas, a nonpartisan, nonprofit, voter outreach group, said Trump’s anti-immigrant leanings are wearing on Latinos there — and that may hurt turnout in November.
"It's going to be a challenge to get these people to participate this year, for sure,” Morales said. “I just feel that people are, kind of, already fed up with all of the news. They're being overloaded by a lot of things they don't really want to hear. I think it's going to be difficult to experience the same types of numbers that we have in the past, in terms of the midterm election."