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Undocumented Activists Inspiring Others to Vote
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Undocumented Activists Inspiring Others to Vote

Brooklyn coffee shop worker Wendell Toro has never cast a ballot, even though he has been eligible to vote for six years. He didn’t think it would matter.

But this summer, Toro, 25, decided to register after a buddy from junior high school — undocumented Mexican immigrant Carlos Vargas — asked him to vote for President Obama on his behalf. “I know I can vote and I know I don’t care about it,” said Toro, a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico. “I’d rather give my vote to Carlos and let him get his word across than me just being silent, letting the world spin.”

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Erica’s Story Behind the Story

Initially, I set out to explore what the 2012 election would mean for the more than eight million American families with mixed immigration status – where some family members are undocumented immigrants, while others are U.S. citizens or legal residents – and what impact the families themselves would have on election results.

At first, I was especially curious to get the perspective of so-called “anchor babies,” born in the U.S. to unauthorized immigrant parents, who were turning 18 in time to vote in November.

However, my focus shifted in June, when the Obama administration announced a new policy giving temporary deportation reprieves and work permits to some young immigrants brought to the country illegally as children. The move, which many saw as a clear attempt to motivate Latino voters, was driven in part by intense campaigning and activism on the part of young undocumented immigrants.

The political motivation on the part of these young people who can’t even vote stands in sharp contrast with the large number of Latinos who are eligible to cast a ballot but stay home on election day. After talking with my editor at the News, I decided to center my story on these young undocumented immigrant activists, and the ways they are working to impact elections even though they themselves don’t have the power to vote.

I ended up featuring a mixed status family who live in Staten Island, New York. Siblings Cesar and Carlos Vargas — who came to the U.S. illegally from Mexico as very young children — were both involved in a campaign that I learned about at the Institute for Justice and Journalism fellowship in Oklahoma.

The “Su Voz Mi Voto” campaign aims to pair U.S. citizens who weren’t planning to cast a ballot this year with undocumented youth — so that the newly-registered voter can essentially cast a vote on the young immigrant’s behalf. For the article, I also interviewed Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. I first met Vargas at the IJJ fellowship and learned a lot from him about Latino voter demographics.

The New York Daily News published my story as a Sunday feature spread on August 12. It generated a lively debate among readers. Many online commenters — among whom anti-immigrant sentiment is more common than in emails and calls from local readers — wrote posts saying the young undocumented immigrants should not be allowed to take part in U.S. politics.

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