PASADENA, California — Lupita Sanchez was 7 years old when her dad was arrested in an ICE raid on the factory where he worked. He was held at an ICE detention facility for three days before being released.
“My sister was two weeks old, a newborn,” she said. “All these things that happen affect children as well as adults.”
Both her parents are undocumented. But Sanchez, who was born in the San Fernando Valley, is an American citizen and now 18 years old and getting ready to vote for the first time in a presidential election.
“I’m going to be honest, I have been waiting for this moment, because all this time I’ve been wanting to vote for not only my voice to be heard but also my parents’,” she said. “I’m going to be representing them. I’m so happy that I’m going to be able to vote this year.”
In the lead-up to the next presidential election, immigration advocates say that undocumented people are not entirely powerless even though they can’t vote, because many are from “mixed status” families like Sanchez’s, which include both citizens and undocumented family members.
It’s people like Sanchez — young, engaged, and who feel like their own futures are at stake — who Democrats need to turn out in high numbers in the 2020 election. There are roughly 8 million US citizens living with an undocumented family member, according to a 2017 analysis of census data by the left-leaning Center for American Progress and the University of Southern California’s Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration.
Last Friday, Sanchez and her mother listened to four of the 2020 candidates at an immigration forum in Pasadena, hosted by the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM), a coalition of immigrant advocacy groups. Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders, former housing secretary Julián Castro, and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made their pitches on immigration, though only Castro and Inslee have released specific plans so far.
“So many of us are from mixed-status families, and just because we can’t vote doesn’t mean that we don’t have an influence in what our families do,” said Bruna Bouhid, spokesperson for immigrant advocacy group United We Dream Action. “I haven’t seen that talked about a lot.”
As the four candidates responded to audience questions and immigration stories, Sanchez sat in the front row, watching each of them closely and taking meticulous notes — neat lists including information about their qualifications, any specific immigration measures they mentioned, and how they spoke to the audience.
“I pay attention more when they talk about the immigration policies and when they talk about what’s going to happen with the separation of families and DACA,” said Sanchez, adding that she knows firsthand what it’s like for the immigration system to separate a child from their parent.
“Even though I’m not the one experiencing it again, it feels like I’m involved, like I’m going through the same thing again,” she said.
The forum, which a coalition of immigration groups held in the lead-up to the 2016 elections as well, included around 500 volunteers and community members the groups have worked with over the years when their families have faced immigration issues.
“For us it’s really about saying that it’s time that you as candidates really step into the issue of immigration and you directly engage with millions of immigrants … and many of those children and spouses of immigrants are voting,” said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Los Angeles–based Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights Action Fund, the group running Friday’s forum along with another community organizing group, the Center for Community Change.
Sanchez’s mother, who was with her daughter Friday, arrived in the US from Mexico in 1998, following her husband who left in 1992. She said she made the decision to come to the US for “a better life.”
She spoke on the condition of not using her name, out of fear of repercussions. While her husband has since obtained a year-to-year work permit after years of legal battles, he still doesn’t have a pathway to citizenship, and she is still entirely undocumented.
She watched with her daughter as Harris and Sanders both committed for the first time to pursue “comprehensive immigration reform” within the first 100 days of their administrations if they win the 2020 election. They both mentioned a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented people, an end to for-profit immigration detention, and rescinding several Trump administration measures, like the Muslim travel ban. Neither candidate has released an immigration plan yet.
Castro pointedly reminded the crowd that he released his detailed immigration plan nearly two months ago, and that it too includes a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people, and goes further to decriminalize crossing the border into the US.
“This president thinks he’s going to win in 2020 on the backs of our immigrants and I’m determined to make sure that he loses,” he said.
After releasing a comprehensive immigration plan the morning of the forum, Inslee talked about immigration as a fundamental human rights issue and referred several times to the progressive policies he has overseen in his home state, including a sanctuary state law he signed off on last week.
Ahead of Friday’s forum in Los Angeles and the California Democratic Party’s convention in San Francisco over the weekend, several 2020 Democrats talked about immigration in greater detail than they have in recent months, both at forums like FIRM’s and at a MoveOn forum on Saturday, and in policy proposals — Inslee released his plan Friday; Texas former member of Congress Beto O’Rourke released a detailed immigration plan Wednesday morning before his California visit.
Salas said that if candidates want to be competitive in California — which holds its primary earlier than usual next year, on Super Tuesday in March, and offers a hefty number of delegates — they should expect to have to talk substantively about immigration and start to take the president on more directly when he targets immigrant communities.
Sanchez is heading to California State University, Northridge, where she wants to study finance, on a full scholarship next year.
She said it seemed to her that Harris “cares about families,” and she gave Sanders an enthusiastic review for talking about making education more accessible as well as immigration reform, and that she was surprised to hear that Castro already has a specific immigration plan. She hasn’t made up her mind yet about whom she wants to vote for, she said, but she’ll be taking more notes in the coming months.
Beto O’Rourke is a former member of Congress. An earlier version of this post misstated his title.