By Emma Sarran Webster
Anthony Pacheco didn’t always want to pursue a career in politics or social justice — until a woman named Brenda Lopez knocked on his door. He was a student at Georgia State University at the time, and Lopez was running for a seat in the Georgia General Assembly. She wanted Pacheco’s vote and support as a volunteer.
“[She] was a woman, she was Latinx, she was a small business owner, and [she was] an attorney,” Pacheco, a 27-year-old recipient of the 2019 MTV Leaders for Change grant, tells MTV News. “And in my neighborhood, we've never seen anybody like that come out and reach out to us and ask for their vote or to be civically engaged.”
It worked: He eventually joined her campaign, and she eventually became the first Latinx state legislator in Georgia. “I thought [it] was really, really interesting that I could help influence or change the status quo in terms of getting more people elected who are traditionally not seen as elected officials,” Pacheco says.
Today, both Lopez and Pacheco champion immigration and voting rights — she as a lawmaker, and he as the Civic Engagement Coordinator for Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta, a title he’s held since spring 2018. In his role, Pacheco (whose parents immigrated from Oaxaca, Mexico) helps people in immigrant communities become actively engaged in democracy and fights for voting access and against anti-immigrant legislation. He details to MTV News what that work entails, the voting-rights roadblocks facing Asian Americans, and what gives him hope.
MTV News: What does your work with Asian Americans Advancing Justice entail?
Anthony Pacheco: In a nutshell, we help to protect the human and civil rights of Asian Americans … and we do that through advocacy at the state capitol. We have people that work on legislation to try to make things work in a way that makes policy more friendly for immigrants… We have a whole legal department that's dedicated to getting people out of detention centers. There are attorneys that serve people [and] give them general immigration help, and it's completely free.
I am with the civic engagement and organizing department, [and] we do a variety of things. My job really is to focus on the electoral side of that social justice movement, making sure voters understand what an election is and who's running for that election [and] helping them to get more involved in the local, state, and federal politics. On the organizing side, we help to mobilize people to fight against any kind of oppression that they're seeing in terms of immigrant rights.
MTV News: What are the biggest roadblocks facing Asian Americans when it comes to voting rights and civic engagement?
Pacheco: The biggest one is probably language access because a lot of people who go to the polls, their primary language is not English… As an organization, we help to curb that by providing a lot of in-language literature, political education, and voting rights education to these people so that they are more willing to go to the polls. [Another] big roadblock, particularly for Asian Americans, is that people do not trust in the electoral side of things in their government because they also come from a lot of countries where their rights are being oppressed; or they come from a lot of totalitarian types of governments where there’s distrust in the government. So we help to [build trust] by providing a lot of in-language things and knocking on people’s doors and making sure they can understand the way our government works here in America, in their language.
MTV News: Your parents are immigrants. How has that influenced your work?
Pacheco: I want to get involved because my family can’t vote because of their immigration status. For me, it’s important to be civically engaged because that helps me give them a voice, even though [it seems like] they don’t have one.
MTV News: You’ve helped to fight anti-immigrant legislation. What does that entail?
Pacheco: Currently we have a campaign within our organization called ICE Out of Gwinnett County. There’s this program called 287(g) that gives local law enforcement and local police departments [the ability] to act as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents. They have the authority to stop somebody, and if they happen to be undocumented, they can transfer them to immigration. We’re working to get Gwinnett County to not participate in that federal program because we’re seeing a lot of people being stopped by the police for very minor traffic offenses — like a broken tail light or a stop sign — and the effects of that are very drastic because families are being separated [and] they’re forced to go to detention centers in south Georgia where it’s known that there are some of the worst conditions. And more than anything, they’re being deported. The local effort is to try to collaborate with our police departments because [the current program] does not reflect the diversity that there is here. We want our communities to feel very safe.
MTV News: How exactly do you fight these kinds of programs and laws?
Pacheco: We’ve gotten support from pro-immigrant legislators; we have a lot of allies working within the capitol or in local government that are pro-immigrant. We also do a lot of petitions putting pressure on our elected officials to act and not [cause] any harm against our immigrant communities. [And] at the capitol, we have what we call Immigrant Rights Thursdays [where] we bring in people — citizens in our community, residents, business owners; most of them are Asian American or another type of minority — and they talk to their representatives. We want them to come to the capitol, and we help navigate them through that process of talking to elected officials. Representatives know that people are watching them and keeping them accountable.
MTV News: Does working to create change on such a large scale ever get overwhelming?
Pacheco: Yeah, it takes a toll, but I’m very much committed to the cause. I’ve experienced that change in my life, from simply getting somebody to knock on my door and asking me for their vote. That change didn’t happen overnight, but I feel like my role as a participant helped. So even though it seems very hard at a larger scale, my goal is to help engage other people to feel that same way. The more people that we’re able to get, the better change we can see — even if it’s minimal or it’s not as fast as we would like it to be. But change does happen. I feel like this system is not broken; it works in favor of those who participate in it. We just need to get more people — more minorities, more people of color, immigrants — to be participants in that democratic process so we can have more favorable policies in place.
MTV News: What gives you hope?
Pacheco: Seeing other people who feel like if they get involved, they’re truly going to make a difference. Seeing people engaging [others] and empowering them to exercise their right to vote, or empowering them to be involved if they can’t vote. What gives me hope is seeing other people actually making things happen on their own without us having to intervene, push them, or encourage them. They’re doing it out of their own benefit and for the benefit of their communities.
MTV News: If you could tell readers one concrete step to help your cause, what would it be?
Pacheco: If you can vote, make sure that you get registered; and if you’re already registered, make sure you exercise your right to do that — not [only] in a presidential election or every two or four years. Make sure you get involved at the local level, too. Vote in this election and every election that’s coming up.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.