Dignity Beyond Voting: Undocumented Immigrants Cast Their Hopes

Aura Bogado & Kemi Bello Oct 25, 2012

Voter ID schemes are largely rooted in an unfounded fear about undocumented people casting ballots. Yet, despite a deeply anti-immigrant climate, undocumented immigrants have participated in this year’s electoral process unlike ever before. 

Just yesterday, undocumented youth rallied in front of Republican Linda McMahon’s Bridgeport, Conn., office, demanding to know how the candidate for U.S. Senate stands on the DREAM Act and immigration. McMahon, the former head of the World Wrestling Entertainment, has so far spent more than $27 million in her bid for Senate. And although she’s heavily courting Connecticut’s Latino voters, she has yet to define her position on immigration in her Spanish language ads. Her opponent, Chris Murphy, already supported the DREAM Act when he voted for it two years ago in the U.S. House.

And although activists have rallied together in previous elections, 2012 marks the first time undocumented people are directly demanding answers from candidates. Meet Kemi Bello. She was an Undocubus rider, a ride we followed as it made its way to the DNC in September. For Kemi, it’s hard to accept that politicians decide the future for undocumented immigrants, who are barred from voting. In this dispatch, she explains how her community is finding ways to engage in the electoral process:

Texas, the state I am proud to call home, became the fifth state to gain majority-minority status last year as our nation overall begins to look browner. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily getting easier for people of color. We’ve also shift towards staunch conservatism, including tea party-oriented groups like Harris County, Texas-based True the Vote, and the surprising primary victory of Texan tea party Senate candidate Ted Cruz. The push back, meanwhile, saw a victory in a federal court’s decision to block a voter ID bill that would have disenfranchised an estimated 1.4 million Texans.

On the federal level, the Obama administration has overseen the deportation of more than 1.4 million undocumented immigrants in less than four years—more than any other administration in the history of the United States. This as states in the South are contributing to a de facto policy of mass deportation by adopting their own attrition through enforcement doctrines. 

At all levels, the immigrant undocumented community is under attack. Survival as an undocumented person has reached a critical mass. It means pushing back against the entire political system itself, all while your lack of papers bars you from the most basic form of civic engagement: the right to vote. 

Voter suppression and anti-immigrant sentiment are rooted in the same unwillingness by those in power to yield to the political shift brought on by the nation’s ever-changing demographics, whether through poll taxes and literacy tests in 1960s Mississippi or Arizona’s show-me-your-papers requirement in 2012. The same question remains: how do we force the political system to recognize and respond to the fact that we exist? 

First, we had to begin holding politicians accountable to the consequences their decisions had on our communities. This is especially important since we cannot vote them out of office ourselves. 

Undocumented youth of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance have continued to push back against harmful policies by staging countless civil disobedience actions. Most recently, they’ve infiltrated a Florida detention center by placing themselves under arrest. In that center, organizers found a mother with no criminal record and a case for asylum jailed for over 2 years and a father picked up by the police simply while dropping off his child at school. The prevailing sense is that in light of such a harsh national atmosphere, there is nothing left to lose and jail simply presents another opportunity to empower and organize the undocumented community from within.

Undocumented youth, fed up with the political game of chess at hand, staged a series of “UndOccupation” actions in Obama for America campaign offices, shutting down offices in California, Michigan, and Ohio. Finally nearing the end of his first term, and with a track record of broken promises to the immigrant community, President Obama knew he had to throw the community a strategically timed bone or risk losing the Latino electorate when he announced deferred action for some undocumented youth. Obama’s suggested policy offers a a case-by-case chance at a temporary, 2 year reprieve from deportation and a work permit for childhood arrivals. Even then, the Latino community still had a lot of questions

But it’s important to remember that Obama made the announcement shortly after the campaign office protests. Obama’s announcement serves as an acknowledgement to the power of undocumented youth, who had thrown a critical cog of inconvenience into his political wheel. Without ever casting a single vote, we had moved the president to act on an issue important to us: our very lives. Without a single lobbyist or PAC, we had disrupted the president’s campaign efforts and fundraising machine.

This hybrid form of political participation was displayed again as Undocubus flaunted its way through the South. We ended our long journey in Charlotte, N.C., the site of the DNC, where we promptly blocked the entrance—a symbolic and powerful statement of those who had been forcefully left out of the process. Locked out, we choose to challenge the political beast at its own front door. These actions serve as a friendly accountability reminder to those in power that we may not be able to vote at the polls this November, but we will continue to find our own ways to effectively participate within the electoral system. 

When you are shut out of the process, you have to create new forms of entry. Whether or not they lock the front door to political participation because of our legal status, we will create a window and climb through it. They have left us with no other choice. Our votes may not count, but our voices do, and we will forever fight for them to be heard. 

And that, my friends, is what democracy really looks like.

This article was originally published on This article is part of "Voting Rights Watch 2012," a reporting project in partnership with The Nation.

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