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Hispanic 'dreamers’ are leading the campaign to get young people to the polls

They can’t cast ballots and they face possible deportation, but a Dover woman and Clearwater man see ‘getting out the vote’ as their civic duty.
Her parents brought Nanci Palacios to the United States from her native Guanajuato, México, when she was 6. She can't vote but she works to persuade others that they should. [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ]

Click here to read this story in Spanish

Nanci Palacios can’t vote, but she can urge others to.

And as deputy director of Faith in Florida, a nonprofit that works with immigrants and others living in poverty, she does so relentlessly — calling on friends, coworkers and neighbors to study local, state and federal politics so they can have a voice in it.

Palacios, 31, of Dover, came to the United States at age 6 and has legal resident status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. Introduced in 2012, the program protects some 660,000 so-called ‘dreamers’ from deportation.

Deferred Action doesn’t offer a path to citizenship or the right to vote. But that hasn’t kept Palacios from fulfilling what she sees as her civic duty.

“It gave me the opportunity to lose some of the fear that undocumented immigrants naturally feel when faced with the danger of deportation, to talk about the importance of participating in our democracy,” Palacios said. “It is a big difference.”

Nanci Palacios of Faith in Florida, left, and Eylin Garcia with the Florida Immigration Coalition host workshops and online briefings encouraging measures to help immigrants and low-income families [JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ]

Joshua Contreras of Clearwater, another Deferred Action program recipient, can’t vote either but is determined to get friends and other young people from minority communities to cast ballots in November.

“You may think that your story doesn’t matter, that people aren’t interested, that you shouldn’t be talking about yourself," said Contreras, 22, who was born in Mexico and moved to the United States with his parents at 8. “If you don’t author your public story, others will, and they may not tell it in the way that you like.”

Persuading young people to vote is a tall order: They are less likely to register and cast ballots than older people, even as their share of the voting age population increases. In the 2016 presidential election, 45 percent of those 18 to 24 who were eligible failed to register as voters compared to just 30 percent among voters overall.

The Deferred Action program is open to those who were brought to the United States before they were 16, have lived here at least five years and have a clean legal record. It provides recipients a Social Security number, enables them to work legally and invites them to renew their status every two years.

Because it was established as an executive order by President Barack Obama and never made it through Congress, the program can be eliminated by Obama’s successor. President Donald Trump issued an order to do just that in 2017, but a court ruled against him. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on the issue by June, the height of the 2020 political campaign.

A new president or a different Congress might take a different view of Deferred Action. It’s a cause important to U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, the Tampa Democrat, who hopes the election will help save the program.

“Dreamers do not enjoy the right to vote today because Senate Republicans and President Trump have blocked the American Dream and Promise Act, but their neighbors and businesses understand what is at stake – and will vote for candidates who understand the importance of a path to citizenship for thousands of young people,” Castor said.

Preserving the Deferred Action program is one reason Palacios advocates for civic involvement. In 2011, she co-founded United We Dream: Tampa Bay to help undocumented students find educational opportunities in Florida.

“I can’t vote, I know, but I have a brother who was born in the U.S., friends, a brother-in-law, and family members who can vote,' she said. “If I don’t tell them to go out and vote, I think they won’t do it because many of them have lost confidence in the political system."

The focus for Faith in Florida is general elections at the local level “because the federal government depends on the collaboration of local authorities to enforce certain orders,” she said.

Dreamer Contreras traveled in 2018 and 2019 to Washington, D.C., Miami and Tallahassee to show support for Deferred Action in meetings with a number of Democratic leaders, including U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist of St. Petersburg, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep Maxine Waters of the Los Angeles area.

“We’re not asking for mercy,” Contreras said. "This is our right and that’s why it is so important to talk to our friends and everyone to vote and to think about our future.”

Joshua Contreras went to Washington DC in 2018 and 2019 to support DACA. [Courtesy Joshua Contreras]

Contreras works in Tampa as a Latin American support team leader at TransferWise, a financial services company that transfers money internationally. The Deferred Action program has opened a lot of doors, he said, enabling him to work toward a bachelor’s degree in communications, land his full-time job, and create FL HereToStay — a local nonprofit that works to achieve equality for Hispanics.

FL HereToStay is one of several groups planning broader Hispanic registration initiatives before the November election, including the League of United Latin American Citizens, Mi Familia Vota and UnidosUS, with its national campaign, Adelante: Moving Us Forward.

“This election year we are working very hard on social platforms to tell people to be active,” Contreras said. “The issue should not only be important for Hispanics but for everyone. Making the change starts at home.”