In the Rio Grande Valley, New Citizens Turn Out to Vote for the First Time

A nonprofit in Brownsville is seeing more immigrants signing up for citizenship classes this year, and more exercising their new right to vote.

Organizer Lupita Sanchez shows her
Organizer Lupita Sanchez shows her "I Voted" sticker. Sophie Novack

Fifty-one-year old Sandra Cantu had never voted before today. Originally from Matamoros, Mexico, Cantu has lived for the last 30 years in Brownsville, just over a mile from the border. She finally became a citizen and registered to vote this spring, motivated by President Trump’s anti-immigrant policies that have sent fear through Latino communities like the Rio Grande Valley.

Asked why she decided to apply for citizenship now, Cantu said, “To have a bit more security here in the United States, to have voting rights.” As we walked into the middle school library where she’d cast her vote Tuesday morning, I asked if Trump had anything to do with that. “.”

rgv, first time voters
Sandra Cantu.  Sophie Novack

Cantu is one of nearly 300 Valley residents who became citizens this year after taking classes and getting application help through the nonprofit Proyecto Juan Diego. Located in the poor colonia of Brownsville’s Cameron Park, the organization has run the classes for several years, but enrollment ballooned after Trump’s election, going from five classes last year to 10 in 2018. This year, the percentage of students who go on to vote has increased, too. In prior elections, only about 20 percent of the new “graduates” voted. That doubled just in early voting this year, according to the organization.

“I tell them, ‘You’re choosing this country as yours. You have to fight for it,’’” says Lupita Sanchez, a community organizer and voting ringleader at Proyecto Juan Diego. She keeps her “I voted” sticker on the staff ID that hangs around her neck, and talks animatedly about the color-coded Excel spreadsheets she uses to track who from the citizenship class has voted, who plans to and who may need an extra push. Those who didn’t vote early recieved calls, texts and visits from canvassers (including Sanchez’s daughter).

The importance of voter turnout in the RGV can’t be overstated. The border has notoriously low participation, but Democrats are hoping the much-watched Texas Senate race between Ted Cruz and Beto O’Rourke will boost Latino participation.

Frustrated by low turnout among former students in prior years, Sanchez gave a few lessons herself this year on the importance of voting and how to do it (never which candidates to vote for, though). She scrolls through a Powerpoint presentation covering the history of voter disenfranchisement, the electoral college, the new citizens’ obligation to vote for their family members who can’t and the duty to fulfill their pledge to protect their new country. “If anything we tell them doesn’t work, we say it’s necessary because they pay taxes,” she adds, laughing.

A Proyecto Juan Diego class.  Sophie Novack

Leticia de Velez, another new citizen from the Proyecto Juan Diego classes, didn’t need encouragement. She woke up early on Election Day, excited to fulfill her civic responsibility — until her son-in-law told her she didn’t need to vote again, since she’d already voted early. For 73-year-old de Velez, who came to the Valley from Monterrey, Mexico, 17 years ago, voting was confusing and scary at first. But she says it’s her way of contributing to the country that’s given her so much.

De Velez says she called her daughter from the parking lot right after exiting the polls, telling her, “I just voted, so I am the happiest woman. I feel now that I’m part of the United States.” She hasn’t worn her “I voted sticker” yet; she says she put it away in the white envelope that holds her naturalization certificate, for safekeeping.

Sanchez has been working on voter outreach in her neighborhood for a long time, but this year is different, she tells me. At 2:30 p.m. on Election Day, Sanchez drives down the street to the community center, the polling location for the precinct, to check updated turnout numbers. She’s been four times already and plans to go twice more before the polls close.

“You can tell I’m happy,” she says, smiling. Cars flow out from the parking lot in front of Proyecto Juan Diego, where a new citizenship class practices interviews inside. “I’m happy now with the numbers, I may not be happy with the results. Tomorrow is another battle.”

Sophie Novack is a staff writer covering public health at the Observer. She previously covered health care policy and politics at National Journal in Washington, D.C. You can contact her at [email protected].

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Published at 6:49 pm CST
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