For many people across the country, the 2020 presidential election has been a constant torrent of political turmoil. However, for America’s population of undocumented residents, who must also deal with a nearly endless barrage of anti-immigrant rhetoric, this election year has been uniquely exhausting — especially because these populations don’t have the right to vote in America. That’s why Nereida Ortiz, an undocumented immigrant in the United States, cares about voting so much.
Ortiz, 20, is a lawful U.S. resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy (DACA), which provides a legal status for immigrants who arrived in the United States as young children. However, this policy does not provide a path to citizenship, which means she cannot vote or leave the country and must pay an expensive fee to renew her status every two years. She spoke to Elite Daily news writer Rhyma Castillo about how her undocumented status has shaped her political views, what she wishes she could vote on in 2020, and why it’s so important for young people to go out and vote in this election.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When I was a kid, I wasn’t totally aware of what being undocumented meant until my mom explained it to me for school. Growing up, I knew I was a minority among my peers, which was difficult for an elementary school kid and teen to deal with.
I’m an undocumented Mexican immigrant. My family came to the United States when I was less than a year old, and we’ve been here ever since. I got DACA status in 2015, which is something I’m really grateful for. I know it’s a privilege, so I always try to keep that in mind.
Being undocumented has made me feel like an outsider in a lot of ways — even in my family. I have two younger brothers who were naturalized because they were born here. I’m always having to remind the people around me of my status and the things I can’t do, like vote or leave the country. That alone has made me feel like an outsider. My experiences have played a huge role in shaping my political views because politics have been a part of my life since I was a kid. When I was in elementary school, I remember having to say the Pledge of Allegiance, listening to the words “with liberty and justice for all,” and knowing I wasn’t included. At one point, I decided to no longer participate in the pledge out of my own frustration.
Sometimes, I’ll hear people talk about how they’re apolitical because they don’t have an interest in our governing systems, and I’ll always think about how that stance is such a privilege. For so many people, their livelihoods are dependent on politics — they can’t afford to be apolitical.
I was in high school when President Donald Trump won the presidential race in 2016. That night was really heavy for a lot of people, including my family. I remember just sitting there thinking, D*mn, I don’t even have the right to participate in this election. The night just made me feel really sad — like an outsider again, in a different sense.
It’s very frustrating to know people who can vote choose not to participate in this election. So many people don’t have voting rights or have had them taken away. Because I’m undocumented, I don’t get to have a say in the policies that directly affect my life, like immigration laws and the violent over-policing of Black and brown communities. It’s a privilege to choose not to vote out of protest, or to be apolitical, because it’s not your well-being or your family’s well-being on the line. There are better ways to protest, and choosing not to vote because you’re unsatisfied with the political process is a very “small picture” mindset. I feel like people who want to opt out of voting have only just recently become aware of how troubled the system is, and they don’t even want to try to fix it because they’re already tired of dealing with it. But I’ve had to deal with this system my entire life, as far back as I can remember.
People who’ve never had to think about America’s governing systems don’t see the “big picture.” They don’t see how their decision to be apolitical affects disenfranchised communities who can’t speak for themselves. Undocumented people, including DACA recipients like me, aren’t afforded the privilege to be apolitical. We don’t have a choice. We have to be political our whole lives because our well-being depends on it. For someone who has the privilege to vote, but chooses not to, I understand it can be comforting to feel like you’re not taking part in a broken or corrupt political system. But for people like me, who don’t have that privilege, it’s more comforting to know your community is fighting on your behalf in a system that’s broken.
If I had the right, I would vote on the issue of creating a path to citizenship for all undocumented people. Unless you’re born here, the process is so long and difficult it’s virtually impossible to become naturalized. That needs to change.
I’ve also been thinking a lot about how our leaders can provide reparations to the thousands of disenfranchised Black communities throughout America. The Black community has endured some of the worst possible treatment of any minority group in this country, and I can’t help but think of all the people in those communities who have to deal with racism while also being undocumented. Reparations have been due for such a long time, and there needs to be some sort of decisive government policy to begin working toward it. I also want the government to take action on defunding the police. Historically, many police forces were established as slave patrols. As a kid, I was afraid of the police because they were known for terrorizing our Black and brown communities. Especially this year, with all the protests that have been going on across America, the police have really shown us exactly who and what they aim to protect and serve — and it’s not communities of color.
If you can vote, it’s important to show up for the people who can’t speak for themselves in this election. Even though I don’t have the right to vote, I find other ways to organize and work for my community. As an undocumented person, I understand it could be dangerous, but I want to do everything I can to change the way this system works for us.
I hope people who are thinking about not voting this year will show up for me by voting, the way I’m showing up for them by protesting and organizing in the streets with my community. If you don’t want to cast your ballot on your own behalf, that’s fine for you. But please, use your voice to speak for someone who can’t.
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