In the days leading up to the Nov. 3 election, Deysi Cordoba took to her keyboard: “Vote,” the 19-year-old nursing student from Grand Rapids wrote to her friends.
Her fingers flew as she typed. Cast your ballots, she urged, for those who cannot, like herself. Vote, she said, because it could make the difference in whether or not Cordoba and hundreds of thousands of undocumented students, high school graduates and veterans, could, after years of living, working and paying taxes in the United States, see a path to citizenship under now President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Or, at the very least, she explained, not live every day fearing they could be deported to countries they knew only as children, places many left before they could even speak in full sentences.
Cordoba and her parents moved from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, just south of El Paso, Texas, to Michigan when she was 1 1/2 years old. Since then, she has graduated from Coopersville High School and now works two jobs, one at McDonald’s and another at Outback Steakhouse, while going to school full-time for nursing at Grand Rapids Community College.
“I had a Facebook post explaining to people that I can’t vote, and that when they vote, to speak for the thousands of DACA Dreamers who cannot vote,” Cordoba said, referring to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, a President Barack Obama-era initiative that generally shields undocumented individuals brought to the United States as children from deportation and allows them to work legally in the country.
The term ‘Dreamers’ refers to the DREAM Act, a federal bill that aimed to grant legal status to undocumented Americans brought to the country as children. The bill was first proposed in 2001 but failed to pass; since then, different versions of the bill have been proposed and one passed the Democratic-led U.S. House this term. But none have become law.
“With [Donald] Trump being president for the last four years, it was a constant stressor if people would be deported or if he would take away DACA,” Cordoba continued. “Even with Obama, he deported a lot of people. Now with the Biden presidency, hopefully he follows through on his promises and gives Dreamers a path to citizenship and more security here.”
After four years of the Trump administration’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies, including an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the DACA program, Cordoba’s hope for a Biden administration that will dismantle the current president’s immigration agenda and enact comprehensive immigration reform are ones shared by immigrants and advocates across Michigan.
From undocumented individuals to Latinx educators working with DACA students and business owners from India, immigrants and advocates throughout the state said they’re hopeful the incoming administration, with the daughter of immigrants at the helm — U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), the country’s first woman, South Asian and Black vice president-elect — will be a radical departure from Trump’s demonization of immigrants and refugees.
Since assuming the presidency in January 2017, Trump and his administration have significantly remade the U.S. immigration system by slashing the number of immigrants and refugees allowed into the country, including those arriving with documentation; stripping citizenship from naturalized Americans; and deporting DACA recipients. Too, the administration enacted a “zero tolerance” policy that resulted in federal immigration officials separating thousands of parents from their children at the United States-Mexico border. Lawyers recently said the parents of at least 666 children separated from their families at the border have not been found.
Biden’s administration, meanwhile, is expected to fully restore the DACA program, end travel and immigration restrictions on African and predominantly Muslim countries, reunite families separated at the U.S.-Mexico border, and implement a 100-day freeze on deportations, among other initiatives.
A ‘restoration of democracy and humanitarianism’
For Sonya Hernandez, who grew up as a migrant farmworker in Michigan and Texas, Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric were front and center for her when she voted — and why she was deeply relieved Biden won.
“I went to the polls for various reasons: I went to the polls for the children in cages; I went to the polls for my daughter, who is growing up half Black and half Latina,” said Hernandez, who is Mexican-American and now serves on the executive committee of the Hispanic Latino Commission of Michigan and works in the diversity, equity and inclusion field at a college in Grand Rapids.
“I could not allow the fabric of democracy in this country to continue to be unraveled. I went to the polls for DACA students who aren’t eligible to vote. I went to the polls for humanity.”
Hernandez is certainly not alone in these sentiments: in an election that drew a historic number of voters — nearly 150 million people cast ballots, according to the U.S. Elections Project — the majority supported Biden’s immigration agenda.
Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling firm, reported that voters backed Biden’s plan to provide a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by a 64% to 27% margin. Voters also agreed with Biden’s plan to continue DACA by a two-to-one margin, and nearly two-thirds of voters opposed the Trump administration’s family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border, according to the same polling firm.
Michigan’s Latinx residents, like Hernandez, came out in force for Biden: according to the 2020 American Election Eve Poll, 76% of Latinx voters in Michigan backed Biden and 22% supported Trump, with poll respondents reporting the top issues facing their community as the coronavirus pandemic, jobs and the economy, and health care costs. Biden won Michigan, which Trump had claimed victory in four years ago, with 50.6% of the vote.
Now, with the Biden-Harris administration, Hernandez is hopeful there will be a “restoration of democracy and humanitarianism.”
“Things are in such a state right now that people have been emboldened to be openly racist; people feel they can do and say whatever they want without repercussions because that’s what the leader of this nation does,” Hernandez said, referring to Trump. “I was contemplating what I would do if Joe Biden didn’t win. I was contemplating: What’s my plan for me and my daughter? I could not continue to live in a country that promotes hate and fear.”
Once the Biden administration takes the reins, Hernandez said she hopes the country’s new leaders will enact a wide variety of progressive policies, including protecting and increasing access to healthcare, creating a pathway to citizenship for DACA students, and protecting migrant farm workers who routinely face unsafe working and living conditions, wage theft, and dangerous pesticides. As someone who grew up working as a migrant farm worker, picking asparagus, peaches, plums, and pears with her parents, this issue is close to her heart, Hernandez noted.
“They’re doing some of the most dirty and dangerous work; they’re working hands-on with pesticides in the hot sun with low wages, and it’s not OK,” Hernandez said. “I hope, moving forward in the state of Michigan and nationwide, that our migrant farm workers will be appreciated.”
‘She’s a great role model’
As the first woman, Black and South Asian Vice President-elect, Harris’ historic win and her presence in the White House will “encourage a lot of younger people of color to” run for office, said Chandru Acharya, the president of the organization South Asian American Voices for Impact.
“She’s a great role model,” said Acharya, a Canton resident who moved from India — where Harris’ mother was from — to Michigan in 2002 for a software engineering job and now co-owns his own information technology company, Imetris Corporation.
Harris’ background as a daughter of immigrants — like her mother, her father moved to the United States; he grew up in Jamaica — is inspiring for people across the country, Acharya said. For Indian-Americans, who represent one of the most rapidly growing immigrant groups in the country and are the second largest immigrant group in Michigan, Harris’ vice presidency holds particular weight.
State Rep. Padma Kuppa (D-Troy), the first Indian-American and Hindu in the Michigan legislature, said Harris’ win was emblematic of women of color taking their rightful, and long overdue, place at the table.
“It’s great to have a woman of color slated to become the first female vice president,” Kuppa said. “She is a role model for women everywhere.”
Thasin Sardar is an East Lansing resident from India who serves on the boards of the Islamic Society of Greater Lansing, the Michigan Chapter of the Council of American Islamic Relations, the Greater Lansing United Nations Association, and the Peace Education Center. Sardar said this election has been closely watched by friends and family in India. Harris’ victory, he said, is “a source of inspiration and excitement for me, my friends and my relatives, particularly those in my home state of Tamil Nadu,” where Harris’ mother was born.
“I think billions of people across the world have been following the election,” said Sardar, who also is a commissioner on the City of East Lansing’s Human Relations Commission and serves on the community advisory board of the Michigan Muslim Community Council and East Lansing Info, as well as other community organizations.
“It speaks high volumes about America as a nation that someone with her heritage has risen to this level,” Sardar continued.
With Harris slated to enter the White House, Acharya said he hopes her vice presidency will result in “more people who are diverse and celebrate diversity” in government, including South Asian Americans. As part of his work at South Asian American Voices for Impact, a nonprofit and nonpartisan group that serves South Asian Americans, Acharya and his colleagues have encouraged immigrants in Michigan to become involved in civic engagement, including voting. He is encouraged to see a growing momentum among Indian-Americans interested in pursuing political office.
“Indian-American state representatives have been elected in Michigan, and you see a lot of people running for other offices,” Acharya said. “We have a significant amount of people wanting to serve.”
After Trump’s ‘Muslim ban,’ a desire for change
Just days after taking office in January 2017, Trump signed an executive order prohibiting almost all travel from certain Muslim-majority countries in a decision that came to be known as the “Muslim ban.” The ban led to massive protests across the country and was blocked by several courts before eventually being upheld by the Supreme Court in 2019. Biden has vowed to overturn the ban on his first day of office.
After a Trump candidacy filled with racist, Islamophobic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, the “Muslim ban” left Sardar feeling despondant — but, he emphasized, only briefly.
“It was a low point for me personally, but I went to the Detroit airport that weekend to protest [in 2017], and it was really refreshing to see hundreds of people who came there and see people from different faith groups protest the Muslim ban,” he said. “That filled me with hope and encouragement. The way the community at large rallied around us filled me with hope.”
From that point, Sardar said his activism work continued to grow, and he saw much of the same in Muslim communities in Michigan and across the country.
“I think the Trump administration, and, by extension, the Islamophobic network, has woken up a sleeping giant, so to speak,” Sardar said. “You have many Muslims running for office and winning across the country.”
Muslim groups and activists also have conducted major voter turnout efforts across the nation, doing everything from conducting virtual town halls to setting up phone banks. Through his work at the Islamic Center of East Lansing, for example, Sardar helped with a “major voter push.”
“We’ve always done that, and this time we felt it was more necessary than ever,” he said. “We knew that if more people participated, that would help bring about a change that would have a positive affect in our lives as citizens in Michigan and in the nation at large.”
About 81,000 Muslim Americans voted early in Michigan, according to Emgage Action, a Muslim civic advocacy organization that endorsed Biden, and the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), said in a press release that Muslim voters across the U.S. cast their ballots in “record numbers” in the national election. Of the 844 registered Muslim voter households polled by CAIR on the night of the Nov. 3 election, 84% said they had voted. Sixty-nine percent of Muslim voters polled by CAIR said they voted for Biden, and 17% said they backed Trump.
Now that the election is over, Sardar said he hopes to see a reversal of the Muslim ban, a return to the Iran nuclear deal, an end to separating children from parents at the border, and the preservation of the Affordable Care Act.
With Muslim engagement in the country’s political process growing, Sardar said he sees more Muslims adopting increasingly progressive stances.
“As Muslims, we are generally conservative; [U.S. Reps.] Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit) and Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have opened the eyes of community members to seek justice for everyone by adopting a progressive platform,” Sardar said.
Of course, as with any group of people, there are deep layers of nuance; no community is monolithic, said Dr. Houssam Attal, a pathologist living in Ada who’s originally from Syria. Attal, who for years has advocated for Syrian refugees in West Michigan, said Arab and Syrian Americans are often small business owners and typically support GOP policies limiting business regulations and taxes. However, he noted, as people are faced with anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric from the Trump administration, they must wade into complex political territory.
“If it wasn’t for the personality of Trump, I definitely would be Republican,” Attal said. “I would never vote for somebody like him.”
And while the “Syrian community would prefer to see an approach of less government control,” the “social welfare the Democrats provide, although not significantly different than what the Republicans provide, is still more assuring to them,” Attal said.
“There’s the idea that if I don’t have money, I can still send my kids to college or have decent health care,” he said.
As for the next four years, Attal said he’s feeling “personally guarded a little bit because I feel this could be a continuation of Obama’s term.”
“For us in the Syrian community, Obama was not supportive of the Syrian revolution; he promised to punish [Syrian President Bashar] Assad for chemical warfare and then he backed down,” Attal said. “…We have to watch to see what Biden’s going to do. We hope he will take more of a firm stance against the dictatorial regime of Assad.”
Dr. Mahmoud Al-Hadidi, chair of the Michigan Muslim Community Council’s board of directors and a doctor who works at a hospital in Southeast Michigan, said he hopes the Biden administration will “come through on promises to treat the Muslim community and the immigrant community with respect and dignity.”
“It’s a relief the election is over,” said Al-Hadidi, who moved from Syria to the United States to pursue his career in medicine. “We’ll hopefully see a time of healing and unity for the country. …We hope to see a true secular government that treats everyone the same.”
Al-Hadidi emphasized that “what’s good for the American community is good for our community,” including ending the COVID-19 pandemic — which the Michigan Muslim Community Council responded to by conducting a massive food drive for families in need. From March through October, the council delivered about half-million food boxes to approximately 100,000 families in six Michigan counties.
Al-Hadidi said he hopes to see the Biden administration repair an economy hemorrhaging from the coronavirus and “peace and security for everyone.”
“[Biden] is hopefully on track to uniting the country,” Al-Hadidi said. “This country is not predominantly far left or far right; most Americans are in the middle or a little to the left or a little to the right. Everybody wants safety, security, jobs, happiness, and health. Let’s work on the common good and stop pointing fingers.”