John Moore/Getty Images

Why Some Young Activists Are Dedicating Their Vote To Immigration

One issue can sway their decision at the polls

Ricardo Chavez, a 17-year-old activist from Oklahoma, says the one thing that will matter most to him when he casts his first-ever vote in the November general election is immigration. He’s not alone, either, given that he says his parents received their citizenship in 2019. “It'll be my first time voting this year, but it'll also be both of my parents' first time voting,” he tells MTV News. “I think that's really cool, and I'm very excited to be able to take them with me to the polls.”

Some candidates promise to uphold the Delayed Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program and pass a DREAM Act that would establish a path to citizenship for hundreds of thousands of people who have only ever called America home — but other candidates have less clear policies and platforms. Undocumented people, and people who are not yet citizens, cannot vote, but they have allies in a growing cohort of young people like Gabriel Madison and Ana Cruz, two 17-year-old first-time voters from the Washington, D.C., area.

“We can't ignore the mistakes that we made in the past, and we can't sit by while mistakes continue to be made,” Gabriel tells MTV News. “We have to actively and consciously work towards a better future for our community.” Ana says she’s voting because she wants her family to “be able to live their lives without fear.”

All three young people are members of United We Dream Action, an immigrant youth-led community that campaigns for immigrant rights. They were among those who rallied outside the seventh Democratic primary debate in Iowa on January 14, calling for former Vice President Joe Biden to promise a moratorium on all deportations in his first 100 days in office. So far, only Senator Bernie Sanders has made such a pledge; Senator Elizabeth Warren has said she’s open to it. Biden’s immigration policy centers an effort to undo the damage wrought by President Donald Trump’s administration, and promises to reform the American immigration system that every candidate agrees is in need of change.

"Vice President Biden recognizes the pain that comes with this conversation. Deportations aren’t just statistics or numbers or talking points: they are fathers, mothers, and family friends," Biden’s National Press Secretary Jamal Brown said in a statement provided to MTV News. He added that, "As president, Biden will work to build a fair and humane immigration system — restoring the progress Trump has cruelly undone and taking it further. He will ensure the dignity of migrants, keep families together, and uphold their legal right to seek asylum. He will enforce our laws without targeting communities, violating due process, or tearing apart families. He will ensure our values are squarely at the center of our immigration and enforcement policies.”

There’s good reason candidates are paying attention to immigration reform: As the Washington Post notes, it is one of the top issues most important to millennials across racial and ethnic backgrounds. Younger Americans are also more likely than older Americans to say that immigrants are good for the country, according to a Pew Research Center survey from January 2019; 75 percent of millennials and 63 percent of gen Xers believe immigrants strengthen our country, compared to 53 percent of baby boomers and only 44 percent of Americans in the Silent Generation.

How those beliefs will influence the 2020 vote remains to be seen, but the footprint of a potentially powerful group of electorates in 2020 is undeniable. According to the Atlantic, 18-year-olds and immigrants who become citizens make up the majority of newly eligible voters. And, as a whole, young people believe in the power they have when casting their vote: A poll by the Associated Press found that nearly half of all respondents aged 15 to 34 say they believe they can have a moderate effect on government, an increase over previous years.

MTV News talks with Ana, Ricardo, and Gabriel about why they're dedicating their first vote ever to immigration, and which politicians they believe are getting the conversation right.

MTV News: Why is immigration your number one issue when you go to vote this year?

Ana Cruz: First of all because of my mother. She's undocumented, she came here from Bolivia with a working visa. And when it expired, she eventually met my father and they had me. My father, he came from El Salvador due to the drastic earthquake that impacted his home in 2001 and ever since.

Editor’s note: In 2018, the Trump administration announced it would rescind the Temporary Protected Status (TPS) granted to Salvadoran people; the administration extended its deadline by a year in October 2019.

Ricardo Chavez: My parents and my sisters were undocumented for a big portion of my life. Being surrounded by the immigrant community definitely shaped a lot of things I did, and my view on life. In 2018, I started doing community organizing and activist work, and have dedicated a big chunk of my life to the immigrants’ rights movement as a whole. I'll be fortunate enough to have the privilege to vote for the first time ever this year. So I'm definitely keeping an eye out on all the policies and issues that these candidates are talking about.

MTV News: What would a perfect candidate's position be on immigration? 

Ana: That they will cut funding for ICE and CBP as well as stopping deportation. But most importantly, ensure the protection of all immigrants, those who have DACA and TPS. As well as [providing a] pathway to citizenship for them, and being able to make opportunities for people who are coming here for a better lifestyle.

Ricardo: An ideal candidate would be someone who is bold in their commitment and upfront with their solidarity and their commitment to the immigrant community. Someone who is willing to commit to ending all deportation, someone who's willing to end and defund agencies that have been targeting and dehumanizing the immigrant community, like ICE and CBP, and just overall, someone who is going to commit and put in the work for the immigrant community and finding ways to provide protections for all immigrants. Not just ones that fit in this ideal narrative of the “good immigrant,” but all immigrants.

MTV News: Do you feel like there are any candidates who are getting it right, right now?

Ricardo: I was following Julián Castro, and I was really invested in what he had to offer. I think he was doing a good job in talking about immigration and being very bold and upfront with what he wanted to do, and his vision was definitely something and I was willing to support. I was a little disappointed when he backed that out from the race. Right now, I think I'm just looking to see another candidate who's willing to put in as much work and dedication to the immigrant community and has a similar [position].

Gabriel Madison: I can't really say that I believe any candidate has a comprehensive training on how to properly treat migrants. [We need a candidate who will promise to] give them the rights that we deserve... and shut down the concentration camps across the United States.

Ana: What I'm really focused on is that we need candidates like Joe Biden to ensure the protection of the immigrant community... First, they can start by closing the concentration camps. There has been a lot of children, a lot of people that have died there due to diseases and they've been neglected. And it's just very inhumane that they exist today. As well as cutting funding for ICE and CBP. I think that's a step in starting to protect the immigrant community, to help them.

MTV News: What do you want people to take away from the discussion surrounding immigration?

Ana: I hope that the new president is able to help the immigrant community. I want my family to be able to live their lives without fear because they have been here for so many years. It makes me angry that my mother or someone just like me, in the same position, they have to live like this. I just hope that there can be a pathway to citizenship and also that all immigrants are protected by this new president and that the separation of families comes to an end.

Ricardo: I think the biggest thing is that our liberation is tied. I'm privileged enough to be a U.S. citizen, but I cannot be liberated as a queer man until my immigrant community is liberated, until my community of color is liberated, until all people are liberated. I think that looking forward [requires] showing solidarity for one another and being here for one another in our times of need. To resist the hateful rhetoric and hateful agendas towards misrepresented communities, and to stand together and show solidarity for one another.

Gabriel: We'll be ready for the first time, and we are voting to represent ourselves and our community who cannot vote for themselves. We’re amplifying the voices of our community.

Over 4 million people will turn 18 between now and the 2020 election. MTV's +1thevote is encouraging all potential first-time voters to register and vote this November. It's time to make voting easier to do, and part of the milestones already happening in your life, from prom to graduation to birthdays. It's a year-long party and +1thevote is inviting you to help us shape the future. Who's your +1?