Mano a Mano: Working Together to Protect Our Rights and Advance Our Community Issues

Ben Monterroso
Executive Director
Mi Familia Vota

In his farewell address to the nation at the end of his eight years in office, President Obama urged Americans not to take our democracy for granted. Having become president during the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, and spearheading the economic recovery that allowed wages, incomes, home values and retirement accounts to rise again as poverty declined, Obama said our democracy will not work unless all of us, regardless of our station in life, have equal economic opportunity.

Obama cautioned, “Our economy doesn't work as well or grow as fast when a few prosper at the expense of a growing middle class…stark inequality is also corrosive to our democratic ideal.”

Democracy is Mi Familia Vota’s founding principle, carried out through the year-round promotion of citizenship, voter registration, and voter participation in elections. Now, in an era when the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, naturalized immigrants and others are threatened by conservatives who protect the influence of money in politics—money that decides election issues, who has the right to vote, and the candidates—those of us who are purposefully disenfranchised must unite to rebuild our democratic institutions. Unless we fight for our voting rights in state legislatures and before the U.S. Supreme Court, we will not have the voting power needed to advance our goals of economic freedom and civil rights.

We must not let our guard down; too much is at stake in the 2018 congressional, state and local elections. At the national level, our votes will voice our opposition to President Trump’s agenda to cut access to affordable health care, eliminate programs for school children and older Americans, and waste resources on a border wall. The 2018 voter turnout will also be a building block for the next presidential election in 2020, which will determine the integrity of the decennial U.S. Census that will be used to redistrict congressional and state legislative boundaries and the distribution of federal funds.

The citizenship workshops held by Mi Familia Vota are vital to growing our community’s voting power. Last year, there were 5.5 million Latino immigrants eligible for citizenship. Also, almost one million Latino citizens turn 18 each year and become eligible to vote. But, as we increase the voting rolls, voter intimidation continues.

The 2011 Texas voter ID law, the harshest in the nation, is an example of states seeking to restrict voting rights. The Texas law severely limited the forms of ID accepted at the polls—excluding student IDs, but allowing concealed handgun licenses. In 2014, a U.S. District Court ruled the law discriminated against people of color and that was the intent. The U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed it was discriminatory, but ordered the lower court to hear more evidence on its intent. With the case pending, Texas voters experienced confusion at the polls last November.

Meanwhile, the new administration’s voter suppression agenda has moved forward. After taking office, the president reiterated his incendiary and unsubstantiated claim that 3 to 5 million illegal votes were cast nationwide in the 2016 election. Though he called for a “major investigation into voter fraud,” the probe did not materialize. Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Justice, headed by Attorney General Jeff Sessions, told the Texas federal court the Department of Justice has changed positions and now supports the discriminatory voter ID law.

The voter ID case is likely headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which decided in 2013 to dismantle the core provision of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that required states with a history of discrimination to pre-clear any voting law changes with the federal government. The ruling freed Texas, Florida and other states from pre-clearance.

We must continue to work together to protect our progress and stop the erosion of rights earned decades ago. The Latino and immigrant communities struggle for civil rights echoes the brave crusades of our African-American brothers and sisters a half century ago. From organizations like the National Urban League, NAACP and others, we learned how to fight, win, endure setbacks and fight again. Similarly, our communities have been increasing voter participation as part of our battle for common sense immigration reform. Despite setbacks, we cannot abandon the cause, which, if done fairly, will restore justice for immigrants and place wages and work conditions on a level playing field.

Broadly, the African-American and Latino communities still have much work to do to reach parity with whites. Based on the National Urban League’s national 2017 Equality Index—which looks at the five categories of economics, health, education, social justice and civil engagement—the African-American share of the American “equality pie” is almost 28% smaller than it is for whites. While the Hispanic slice is slightly larger, they are missing close to 22% of that pie. Hispanics rate slightly higher, partly because of increased access to affordable healthcare through Obama’s Affordable Care Act, which President Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress have vowed to repeal.

Understandably, the levels of civic engagement for Blacks and Hispanics have not reached Obama-era levels. The former president, the first African-American president, tried to enact immigration reform and created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that deferred deportation for those who were brought to the U.S. as children without documents.

The new president’s assault on immigrants, especially those from Central and South America, attacks all Latinos based on the color of our skin, regardless of status. The best tool we have to stop the needless separation of families is our right to vote. All of us must engage in our democracy. Voters should reject candidates who refuse to restore our voting rights; who judge people based on the color of their skin, or where they were born; and who confirms justices who will not uphold our civil rights.

As President Obama said, “I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes We Can.” Sí se puede.

The African-American and Latino communities must keep the faith that together we can increase the voter turnout in 2018 and let our voices ring loudly that we will fight to protect our civil and economic rights.