Some Latino and Muslim immigrants are alarmed by the anti-immigration rhetoric coming from Republican presidential candidates and thinking hard about who to vote for in November.
Mitha Wardhani, 26, said she’s excited to attend her first political caucus. She moved here from Indonesia with her family when she was five, became a citizen in 2014 and this year will vote in her first presidential election.
She’s read up on how Washington state’s Democratic caucuses work and looks forward to supporters of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton arguing their positions and trying to sway other caucusgoers Saturday in her Renton precinct.
But frustration is also part of this milestone year in Wardhani’s life as an American.
Democratic Party caucuses
• Washington state Democrats will allocate delegates to presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders based on Saturday’s caucuses.
• Caucuses start at 10 a.m. and usually take about two hours. Results are expected Saturday afternoon.
• To find your caucus location, go to https://demcaucus.com/register
As an immigrant and a Muslim, she has ruled out the Republican candidates because of the harsh pronouncements about illegal immigrants inflaming the presidential campaign. In the wake of the Brussels terrorist bombings Tuesday, Donald Trump repeated his call to ban Muslims from entering the U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz called for more surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods.
“We’re citizens, but we’re being treated like criminals,” said Wardhani, a University of Washington graduate who works at a small telecommunications company in Bellevue. “The word Islam actually means peace. The vast majority of Muslims want peace, just like everyone else.”
Her concerns about the campaign’s tone are widely shared. Latino immigrants in this country for decades, in some cases, have applied for citizenship in the past year after hearing Trump’s and Cruz’s calls for deporting 11 million immigrants who entered the U.S. illegally.
Washington State Republicans are trying to counter some of the anti-immigrant rhetoric by stepping up efforts to reach new Hispanic voters in Eastern Washington, said Chris Vance, a former state party chairman now running to unseat Democratic U.S. Sen. Patty Murray. He said the state party has added a full-time field worker to register new voters in the Yakima Valley and Tri-Cities.
“It’s becoming a more diverse party,” Vance said. But he acknowledged Trump hasn’t helped the cause of attracting immigrant voters. “Donald Trump has said numerous things that are not fair and are not accurate. I cringe whenever he says those things.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A post-mortem on the 2012 election by the national Republican Party observed that their candidate, Mitt Romney, had captured just 27 percent of the Latino vote and 20 percent of the overall minority vote. With Hispanics now the largest minority group and among the fastest growing, according to the Pew Research Center, the 100-page report concluded, “If our Party is not welcoming and inclusive, young people and increasingly other voters will continue to tune us out.”
It urged Republicans to support comprehensive immigration reform and quoted former Republican House Majority Leader Dick Armey as saying, “You can’t call someone ugly and expect them to go to the prom with you.”
Seizing the opening, Clinton and Sanders have competed for immigrant and Latino votes, with both recently promising to not deport anyone unless they have committed a crime or are a security threat. Among the remaining Republican candidates, only Ohio Gov. John Kasich has called for allowing those who have not committed crimes to remain in the country.
The Trump factor
In Washington state, the number of legal immigrants seeking help applying for citizenship is up significantly, said Sarah Sumadi of the immigrant-rights organization OneAmerica. The group partners with organizations around the state to hold free one-day workshops to help applicants with the legal requirements and extensive paperwork required to become citizens. It typically takes about five months for the federal government to approve new applications.
An estimated 180,000 legal permanent residents in the state are eligible to apply, she said.
The April 2014 citizenship workshop in Yakima drew 87 participants. Last year it attracted 221. This year, Sumadi said, she expects an even larger turnout. Washington is one of the few states, she said, that provides funding to help legal immigrants become citizens.
Karol Brown, a Bellevue immigration attorney who has provided free legal services at more than a dozen OneAmerica workshops over the past decade, said new applicants tell her they are applying for citizenship so they can counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric of the presidential campaign.
“It’s been the best immigrant voter-registration drive I’ve ever seen. Nothing has motivated people like Donald Trump,” Brown said.
“I have a stake”
Marco Roman, who works as a waiter at a Bellevue restaurant, took the oath of citizenship in December, in a ceremony he described as “really emotional. I’m so proud to be an American citizen now. People say it’s only one vote, but one vote can make a difference.”
Roman, 50, who came here from Mexico in the 1990s, said he is sad and disappointed that so many people — including some of his neighbors and acquaintances — support Trump’s call to build a wall along the border and deport undocumented residents.
“To single out people from one country really seems racist,” he said. “Trump is saying these things, but a lot of people are standing behind him cheering. I understand there needs to be rules, to be borders, but to load 11 million people onto buses and send them back to Mexico, it just incites violence against people who weren’t born here.”
Teresita Bazan, who also grew up in Mexico, moved to the U.S. in 2004 to be with her husband, a graduate student at the University of Washington. She works in family support at the Seattle World School, part of Seattle Public Schools, where immigrant students get language and academic support to continue their education.
She said she was reluctant to become a citizen because the United States seemed to fall so short of its promise of equal opportunity. She sees students who drop out because their education didn’t engage them or who must work to help their families survive economically.
Bazan, 35, is also critical of an American foreign policy that she said has fueled an influx of immigrants.
“I would like to hear acknowledgment from the candidates that they understand the impact a president can have on a country like Mexico, that their decisions can affect why people are migrating, not just from Mexico, but around the world. Look at Syria.”
Ruba Mohammad, 35, came to the U.S. in 2006 to join her husband, a software engineer. They live now in Sammamish. Their former mosque in Phoenix became the site of armed protests against Muslims last year. Recently, her daughter’s best friend said she was sorry that she had to leave the country. She’d heard that Muslims were going to be banned.
Mohammad said she decided to become a citizen because “as an American Muslim and a mother, I have to speak up. Trump is saying what he thinks, but millions of people are listening.”
Ayoob Siddick, 55, of Snohomish, sought political asylum in 2001 for himself and his family because of persecution in their native Zimbabwe. After living most of his life under an apartheid system in which he was labeled “colored” and limited to jobs that required “the skill of hands,” he said he was overwhelmed by the support his family received here from whites and non-Muslims.
He became a citizen in February.
“I feel now that I have a stake in America. I pledged the oath of allegiance to uphold the Constitution and abide by all the laws,” Siddick said.
As for the tenor of the election season. he said, “Hate speech only destabilizes a nation. Our founding fathers didn’t have this in mind.”