POLITICS
11/01/2014 07:30 am ET Updated Nov 02, 2014

Immigrants Urge Colorado Latinos To Vote: 'My Family Depends On How Well We Do'

AURORA, Colorado -- Leo Murrieta, a 28-year-old national field director for the Latino advocacy group Mi Familia Vota, gathered with a dozen or so canvassers around a conference table on Monday to get them ready to go out into the Denver suburb and talk to people about voting.

There were no chairs at the table -- Mi Familia Vota had borrowed them from partner groups that had asked for them back. So the canvassers stood to listen to Murrieta run through reminders for what they needed to do. It was raining outside and chilly, but he joked that a little rain wouldn't kill them. He reminded them to be friendly to the potential voters and imagine they were uncles or aunts -- "talk to them like they're your tíos, your tías," he said -- and to make sure to mark off everyone they spoke to. If no one was at the door, they'd go back.

It was eight days out from the election in Colorado, a key swing state with a Latino population that's being heavily courted by both parties, putting groups like Mi Familia Vota into their final sprint to get the community involved. Latinos in Colorado could have a major influence on the fate of the Senate -- if Republican candidate Cory Gardner beats Democratic Sen. Mark Udall, the upper chamber could end up led by the GOP.

The results also could have a major influence on the fate of immigration reform, an issue that doesn't always top Latino voters' list of priorities but does tend to be highly personal. It certainly is for Murrieta, as he told the canvassers around the conference table. He legally immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico when he was just a week old, and became a citizen in 2010. But his brother-in-law and sister-in-law are both undocumented, and could be deported.

As he told the canvassers about his family members, he began to choke up.

"I get emotional because this is really important," he said. "My family depends on how well we do."

Being a canvasser can be a difficult job. Those with Mi Familia Vota spend hours outside alone walking door to door, in the hope they will convince people to mail in their ballots, drop them off, or go to a polling place, although they do not advocate for specific candidates. Usually, people they encounter are friendly, but some are rude or impatient. Often, they don't open the door at all. Canvassing is a job, but Murrieta encouraged them to remember the other reasons they did it. For some, maybe it was because they care about the education system or jobs. For others, it was immigration reform. They needed to remember their motivations, he said.

Before they went out into the neighborhoods, they clapped and did a chant: "Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede! Sí, se puede!"

About 15 minutes later, 17-year-old Daniela Alonzo was dropped off in an Aurora neighborhood to begin canvassing for the day. She's a senior in high school and a legal permanent resident who moved to the U.S. from Mexico when she was 13 years old. She said the job isn't so hard -- other than when she needs to go to the bathroom while she's out canvassing -- and that most people are friendly. She tracks her steps using her phone, and usually makes it to about 15,000 per day.

At the first house, Alonzo took out a small rock and knocked it on the door -- "It starts to hurt your hand when you knock enough of them," she said -- and no one answered. But the owner, 47-year-old Sergio Sanchez, was outside in the driveway working on his car. He was listening to a Spanish-language radio station, so she spoke to him in Spanish at first, and he agreed to sign a card to get more info from Mi Familia Vota about the election.

Sanchez told Alonzo he planned to vote, but after she walked on to the next house, he said he wasn't positive yet. The Denver native said he votes every election, but it's harder this year. Immigration is an important issue for him, and after seeing some of his friends and family get deported, he said, he is unhappy with President Barack Obama.

"Obama, he promised a lot of things, immigration and all of that, and he never did it," Sanchez said. "So it's just one of those things."

Latino voter support for Democrats is significant but has dropped, and some in the community have expressed frustration with Obama's high removal numbers and a decision to delay executive action that could shield some undocumented immigrants from deportation. Latino outreach groups and advocates want to make sure that frustration doesn't lead to voters staying home, because the election remains important for immigration reform.

Abel Perez, a 26-year-old who does canvassing work in Longmont, Colorado, for the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund, said he hears from voters that they are disappointed with Obama, Republicans, or both.

"Some people are upset with Obama because of his delay on administrative relief," he said. "Some people don’t even want to vote anymore because they’re upset with everybody."

The canvassing gig is Perez's first real job. He's an undocumented immigrant who came to the country from Mexico 20 years ago, and he now has authorization to remain here and work legally under Obama's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA. His family is mixed-status -- some are legal residents, others are citizens, others are undocumented. His younger brother was deported four years ago. When he talks to potential voters, Perez tells them how important their vote is to keep families like his together.

Perez was at the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund office in Longmont getting ready for canvassing with Lizarlette Alvarez, a 19-year-old U.S.-born citizen whose mother is undocumented. She has been involved in politics since the Dream Act, a bill that would help undocumented young people who came to the country as kids, failed in the Senate. That was when she realized how many people in her community were afraid, she said. This is her first year voting, and Alvarez said she hopes to encourage others to do the same, in part to keep Gardner from winning instead of pro-reform Udall.

"If we could get more people educated in politics, we could make some real change," she said. "That's the beauty of a democracy, but so many people are not informed or not educated about the issues that are coming up. And that's when the politicians get to do whatever they want."

Getting voters informed, then, is a key part of the effort. They recently attended an informal get-together called "Ballots and Brews," hosted by 26-year-old DACA recipient Alex Pardo. Pardo can't vote, but he gathered about 30 people to watch the Broncos game and talk about the election. Some people brought their mail-in ballots so they could go through them measure by measure and discuss each issue.

Pardo has been in the U.S. since 1990 but has no clear path to becoming a citizen, and he said he urges his friends to vote to help people like him.

"I have lots of friends who are eligible to vote," he said. "They don't follow politics as much, but they will still vote because they think my situation is B.S. That's a small thing they can do, it's just a small portion of their time to try and help equalize the situation for me and a lot of people."

Clarification: Language has been added to indicate that Perez and Alvarez have been working on behalf of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition Action Fund, and not directly for the affiliated coalition.

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