For years, Cristian Avila would knock on doors and urge Latinos in his neighborhood to register to vote.
And for years, he and his colleagues at the Phoenix outpost of Mi Familia Vota, a national nonprofit that promotes civic engagement within the Latino community, faced steady rejection.
“When we first started, a lot of the people would like slam the doors,” recalls Mr. Avila, who started volunteering with the organization in 2006. “ ‘Oh I don’t want to vote, that’s not for me. I don’t want anything to do about politics.’ ”
But as hostility towards illegal immigration took root in political rhetoric – culminating in Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s calls to build a wall along the US-Mexico border – Avila noticed two things: First, more Latinos began to warm up to the idea of participating in elections.
Second, more undocumented youth began to embrace their role in swaying the vote to their advantage.
“You know, being undocumented, being young, I think we have the motive, we have the passion, and a lot of us have the energy to do this kind of work,” says Avila, 26, a beneficiary of President Obama’s Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy.
“I can’t vote,” he adds, “but I'm making sure all my cousins and my friends are voting for someone who’s going to give me a better tomorrow. So I think my vote just multiplied by five, by ten, whatever it is.”
Though the majority of undocumented youth still likely keep their status secret, more appear to have openly taken part in the political process over the past decade, according to political pundits, researchers, and community activists. Last week, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s campaign launched an effort to engage DREAMers – so called because they meet the requirements for temporarily avoiding deportation under the DREAM Act – in boosting Latino voter turnout.
That turnout could play a big role in November – especially in states where the Hispanic population is growing and immigration is a key issue.
“I think there’s no doubt that the sense of determination amongst advocates for immigrant rights has never been stronger than it is now,” says Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies at American University in Washington. “In a place like Arizona, and I would add elsewhere, substantial success in efforts to promote Latino turnout could lead to a remarkable outcome.”
Democrats increasingly count on Latinos to carry swing states such as Nevada, Colorado, and Florida. Here in Arizona, they face a steeper challenge in swinging the state from red to blue; absent a Democratic landslide, such a switch is unlikely in 2016.
But the efforts of undocumented immigrants are a part of that shifting calculus.
“It’s going to happen,” says Anna O’Leary, a professor of Mexican-American studies at the University of Arizona, of the state's swing away from conservatism. “Even if nothing happens to push it forward, just the sheer force of demographics eventually [will be enough].”
The Goldwater state
Arizona’s right-wing roots run deep. The state voted Republican in every presidential race from 1952 to 1992 – the only state to do so in that period.
Still, change is taking place as political rhetoric against immigration continues to create a powerful backlash.
“It’s been counterintuitive,” says Lisa Magaña, a professor at Arizona State University who specializes in immigration and Latino public policy. “If the government was tough on immigration, they thought, ‘Oh, OK, this is going to keep people down, shut them up.’ In fact, it’s galvanized people [to take the opposite side].”
Even hard-line Republicans don’t deny the shift.
“Of course I see it,” says Jose Borrajero, a longtime Arizona resident who, like many of his countrymen who fled Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s, is a staunch conservative. “We’re moving very rapidly in the other direction.”
Undocumented to activist
Avila was 9 years old when smugglers drove him, his twin siblings, and their mother over the US-Mexico border into Arizona. Here they reunited with Avila’s father, who had crossed into the US alone years before to prepare a new life for his wife and children. The family settled in Phoenix, moving in with Avila’s aunt who had a home in the projects in the city’s south side.
For his part, Avila kept his head down and his grades up – his way of repaying his parents’ sacrifice. Politics, he says, remained in the periphery at best. At worst, it was something to be avoided so as to not call attention to their status.
“We used to be afraid of telling people we’re undocumented,” Avila says.
Then in late 2005, the US House of Representatives passed legislation that – among other things – would tighten border security, make it easier to deport unauthorized immigrants, and criminalize anyone who offered them aid. The bill never made it past the Senate, but the move sparked immigration reform protests across the nation.
For the first time Avila, then in high school, realized that he and his family were not alone in their predicament. He began to understand the potential of self-advocacy and the power of thousands of people fighting for the same cause. In 2006, he joined Mi Familia Vota as a volunteer.
“I had the opportunity to become part of the solution, and I just dove right in,” says Avila, now the group’s national civic engagement coordinator. “Building political power is the only way I’m going to build the future of my parents and families like mine. I’m tired of seeing my mom and dad coming home every day with their hands busted.”
A new Latino voice
DREAMers across the nation have mirrored Avila’s enthusiasm.
“There has emerged over last number of years a … movement of young undocumented people and other youth who have mobilized in protest against deportation and in favor of the DREAM Act,” says Professor Hershberg at American University.
“They have been an extraordinary voice in the Latino side, pushing to find a way to create opportunity for themselves and their parents to not only find a way to work, but to become citizens and vote,” adds Lydia Camarillo, vice president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a nonpartisan Latino voter participation group based in Texas. “They are a force.”
How much of a force in the presidential race remains unclear. Mr. Trump has alienated most undocumented youth with his rhetoric around border security and wall-building. But young immigrants have also expressed misgivings about Mrs. Clinton, even as she vows to introduce sweeping immigration reforms within the first 100 days of her administration.
“Myself, my community – we don't affiliate with the political party, the political candidate,” says Eduardo Sainz, another 20-something staffer at Mi Familia Vota who was undocumented for years.
“We are going to push for our issues,” he says. “We're going to push for what's best for our community.”
Despite changing attitudes around immigrant reform, the road ahead is fraught for undocumented advocates. Resistance to open-border policies remain strong among core conservatives like Mr. Borrajero, the Arizona resident who immigrated from Cuba. A member of several Republican organizations, Borrajero is among those working to maintain the status quo in his state – and hoping for a return to more conservative values.
“I hope people have kind of woken up and there will be a reversal,” he says. “[I hope] that Trump will be elected [and] that he’ll deliver on his promise. Those are two things that I’m hoping for. They may or may not happen, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to move in that direction.”
Still, it’s clear that the movement among undocumented youth is here to stay, even when faced with setbacks like the Supreme Court’s split decision in June on DACA and its sister policy, Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA). The deadlock leaves in place an appeals court ruling that blocks Obama’s plan to shield up to 5 million undocumented immigrants from deportation.
“At this point, we don't have the luxury to give up,” Avila says. “I don't think we got into this fight to get DACA and DAPA. We got into this fight to have immigration reform.”
“It is a little discouraging,” he says. “But at the same time I think it’s also a way for us to get back up and strap our boots down and keep going. We have 11 million people. If 11 million people came out and demanded what we needed, I don't think there could be a way for them to shut us down.”