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This election season’s unexpected power players: undocumented immigrants

Donald Trump’s rhetoric is sparking a movement to mobilize Hispanic voters.


In early June, Juan Gallegos joined a rally in California for presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, then vying for the Democratic nomination. Gallegos — an undocumented immigrant who is ineligible to vote and whose residency depends on a presidential order and a permit — never expected he’d participate in the American political process. Yet there he was, a high-energy millennial with a broad smile, flanked by Bernie T-shirts and waving flags, cheering for the Democratic Party.

Almost exactly one year before that rally, Donald Trump had announced his own bid for the White House, promising mass deportations and a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Trump’s message rapidly gained traction among Republican primary voters. In late August, in a speech in Arizona, Trump doubled down on his anti-immigrant platform and laid out plans for a special deportation taskforce. Gallegos decided that the best way he could protect his own future was to become engaged in politics and try to convince his peers to vote on his behalf.

Gallegos is one of many young undocumented immigrants — the so-called Dreamers, named after the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act rejected by the Senate in 2010 — who have become politically active in response to Trump’s rise. Gallegos, who was born in Tulum, Mexico, moved to Nebraska when he was 12 and graduated from the state’s flagship university in 2010. But a graduate without proof of citizenship can’t do much, Gallegos recalls; his first job was installing irrigation pipes. In 2011, President Barack Obama, under an executive order called the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, postponed the deportation of young adults like Gallegos. The order allowed Gallegos to intern for a Denver communications firm. Now he volunteers for the Latino Get Out the Vote effort for Democrat Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “Trump has promised he will get rid of DACA and deport everyone,” Gallegos says. “There is too much at stake for our communities to sit and watch Trump take the White House.” 

Trump’s presidential bid has raised the profile of Latino voters, and inspired the growing politicization of an unlikely group: Gallegos and Dreamers like him who are unable to vote themselves. They are mobilizing voters by drawing attention to Trump’s threatening rhetoric. And their message is taking hold in important swing states like Nevada, Arizona and Colorado.


Juan Gallegos, an undocumented immigrant protected by a Deferred Action permit, calls Hispanic voters while campaigning with Kathelijne Niessen, to his left, and campaign organizer Casey Anne Macauley in the West Denver Hillary Clinton Campaign office.
Paige Blankenbuehler

Nationwide, about 12 percent of the country’s eligible voters are Latino. The West is home to nearly 40 percent of them, far surpassing other regions. The Latino voting bloc is also in transition: This year, there are more than 27.3 million eligible Hispanic voters (up from 19.5 million in 2008). Those voters are generally younger and more politically engaged: 63 percent of Latino voters say they will vote in the general election, compared to less than 10 percent who said they would in 2008, according to Pew Research. Why the increase? Lorella Praeli, national Latino vote director for the Clinton campaign, says: “There is so much fear, so much anger and so much at stake in a Donald Trump presidency.”

The Dreamers are purpling the Western swing states of Nevada, Colorado and Arizona. In Scottsdale, Arizona, the Dreamer organization Promise Arizona helped bump Arizona’s Latino voter registration to nearly 1.3 million from fewer than 800,000 in 2008.  Latinos are becoming more active in other important battleground states in the West, too. In Nevada, home of the largest percentage of undocumented immigrants, nearly 197,000 Latinos registered this year, compared to about 143,000 in 2008. Colorado doesn’t track registered voters by race, but 555,000 Latinos were eligible for this year’s primary, compared to 404,000 in 2008.

Groups in other states are taking advantage of the Trump factor, as well. In Sonoma County, California, the North Bay Organizing Project, a nonprofit led by Latino vineyard workers, shifted its focus from low-income housing efforts to keeping Trump out of the White House. Dreamers in Santa Fe, New Mexico, say the local Hispanic population has also been emboldened. “(Trump) has created an opportunity for Clinton to court that vote,” says Allegra Love, an immigration lawyer and head of the Santa Fe Dreamers organization. “His stances on issues that impact immigrants are so out of control that she just has to come across as not racist.”

While the success of their efforts will remain unknown until after Election Day, Clinton is certainly capitalizing on their momentum. In August, she launched a campaign called “Mi Sueño, Tu Voto,” (“My Dream, Your Vote”) that solicits the help of young undocumented immigrants to spur registration among eligible Latino voters. When the campaign hit West Denver, Gallegos was there, making calls. At the campaign office recently, he could be heard pleading with a Spanish-only speaker: “We could really throw away this election if we don’t mobilize,” he said. “If Donald Trump is elected, will he come after us?”

Paige Blankenbuehler is an HCN editorial fellow.