PHOENIX- Mr. Manuel Ramírez Chávez was born in Michoacán, Mexico, but arrived in the United States when he was eight years old. Fifty-six years later, at the age of 64, he's finally becoming a citizen. He didn't do it earlier, he said, "because I'd never seen as much discrimination as (I see) now, so much racism, so much persecution against Hispanics."
He wants to vote "to make changes here in the state of Arizona." "If we don't vote, nothing will change," Manuel told me at a citizenship drive organized by Mi Familia Vota this past Saturday in Guadalupe, Arizona.
Meanwhile, in Phoenix, the ONE Arizona coalition, made up of eleven nonpartisan organizations dedicated to voter registration, education and mobilization, was training young Latino citizens who aspire to hold public office. The attendees are motivated in large part by the anti-immigrant and generally anti-Hispanic atmosphere seen in Arizona in the wake of the state law SB 1070, attacks on ethnic studies, and the abuses of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Norma Alicia Meléndez Arámbula, born in San Francisco, came to Phoenix when she was eight. Now 22, she hopes to become an immigration lawyer, and eventually climb the ladder of public office -- with an eye toward an eventual seat in the U.S. Senate.
One of her strongest motivators has been the anti-immigrant climate in Arizona and other parts of the country.
"I'm motivated because many of my relatives are undocumented, many of my friends. I see how they live with the fear of not being able to leave the house, how some people take advantage of their fear. I want to show them that I can represent them, in one way or another, that even though they don't have papers, there's a way to resolve things without them having to skulk around like criminals," Meléndez said.
The New America Leaders Project was founded to be a workshop in leadership for these young people. The project's founding director, Sayu Bhojwani, told me that there's a need not just to have immigrants in public office, but immigrants "who reflect the needs and interests of our communities" and who come from the same communities they hope to represent. Since 2010, she said, immigrants are not viewed just as voters who should be mobilized to vote for others, "but as direct participants with a seat at the decision-making table."
As the Republican primary campaign continues and the candidates continue their march to the far right on immigration, here in Arizona numerous organizations are focusing their efforts on making sure that eligible Hispanics become citizens; that those who are already citizens sign up to vote; and that, in general, Hispanics get involved in the political process at all levels, including as candidates.
Take, for example, the Mi Familia Vota citizenship drive held last Saturday in the town of Guadalupe. (Guadalupe is located between Tempe and Phoenix, and is one of the towns under the jurisdiction of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.)
Abigail Duarte, state coordinator for Mi Familia Vota, explained that since 2010, amidst the clamor over SB 1070, she's certainly seen interest in naturalization spike. Mi Familia Vota has had to conduct more citizenship drives than they'd originally scheduled. "There's always been a lot of interest in these events, but we've definitely seen that this year it's gone up, since January, and people have started to call us more often." The anti-immigrant climate has been a factor. "Many people disagree with what they're seeing, they feel personally attacked, and they want to make it clear that they're part of this country, and they're taking the final step of becoming citizens and voting," Duarte added.
Osvaldo Ulises Sierra was naturalized last January 27th, and said that his decision had "a lot to do with anti-immigrant politics, because as a citizen you can demand more of your representatives in government, and it gives more security to you and your family."
He said he won't be able to vote for any Republican in November because the current frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Mitt Romney, "says one thing one day and another the next." While President Barack Obama hasn't kept his promise to promote immigration reform, he's planning to vote for him "because at least there was a promise, and you hope that he can come around to keeping it. On the other (Republican) side, there's nothing."
Since 2010, in the wake of SB 1070's passage, ONE Arizona (whose members include Mi Familia Vota, Voto Latino, NALEO, and Promise Arizona) has led efforts to ensure that as many Latinos who are eligible to vote as possible get registered-and that once registered, they turn out to vote, especially "low-propensity" sectors of the Latino voter pool. They succeeded in mobilizing these "low-propensity" Latino voters in the midterm elections in 2010 and in Phoenix's municipal elections in 2011, which resulted in the election of a Democratic mayor and a second Hispanic, Daniel Valenzuela, on the city council.
"And we'll keep it up this year. It's a sustainable process. Phoenix has been a microcosm of what we can achieve and we hope to expand it (to the rest of the state)," said Leticia de la Vara, director of ONE Arizona.
Manuel, for his part, said that all around Arizona people are talking about the need to vote. "They've heard the attacks that (Republicans) are making against Hispanics, about putting an electric fence (on the border) and that Romney wants to let the police round everybody up and kick them out."
He said of Obama that even though he hasn't kept his promise of reform, "we have to give him another chance because the others (the Republicans) are just attacking us too much."