On the Sidelines of History

Students Who Can't Vote Watch the Election Unfold


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Photo: / 34th Street

The night was briskly cold, but college junior Kami Stavreva, along with over seven thousand other Philadelphians, was undeterred. 

She came to see Hillary Clinton’s October rally in Penn Park and waited patiently for the presidential nominee to take the stage. After a man in front of Kami asked if she was registered to vote, the College junior replied that she couldn’t—Kami lived in the Czech Republic until she was six and has a green card, a document that officially grants permission for immigrants to live in the country, but no U.S. citizenship. 

“He just gave me a look that was like—why are you even here?” she said. “It felt like it was wrong for me to be trying to be politically active because I couldn’t vote.” 

Kami is one of many Penn students who are not American citizens—according to the 2015–2016 common data set, around 11 percent of undergraduates identified themselves as nonresident aliens. These students’ statuses range from visa–holders to green card recipients to undocumented immigrants. Unable to vote, these students are held static while the country they reside in faces one of its most contentious presidential elections. 

Nonresident Aliens at Penn
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They are witnesses of a contest in which many of the bitterest debates have focused on issues of race and immigration, at a time when America’s white majority is shrinking and political correctness has become a partisan issue. They are the subjects of some of the harshest political back–and– forths, yet they can only watch from the sidelines in horror as the drama unfolds. 

However, that hasn’t stopped them from following the twists and turns of the election and finding ways to make a political difference outside the polling booth. The national rhetoric that has characterized the race has, in many cases, spurred Penn’s non–citizens to become politically active in other ways in a push to elect candidates whose views align with theirs. 

And it certainly hasn’t prevented them from taking a hard look at the anti–immigrant sentiment that has risen to the fore during this particular presidential battle—and what it might say about America. 

***

A few weeks ago, College senior Daisy Romero had dinner with her younger sister and brought up the presidential election. 

But her sister didn’t want to talk about it. For most Penn students, the election sparks excitement, fascination, anticipation—for the Romeros, it’s terrifying. 

“It’s been stressful on so many levels,” Daisy said. “Uncertainty is pretty much the big word that’s just in the back of our minds a lot.” 

Daisy and her sister are undocumented immigrants from Mexico. They came to the United States with their parents on tourist visas nearly 13 years ago and have lived in San Antonio, Texas ever since. They don’t have green cards but are beneficiaries of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals—a 2012 Obama executive order that provides two–year work permits to undocumented immigrants who entered the country as children. 

After years of hard work, navigating complex policies and enduring backlash from those who’d rather not have them in the country, the sisters eventually found themselves at Penn. 

Penn is one of a handful of American universities that make themselves available to undocumented students. Although students vary on whether they choose to be “out”—or public—about their status, many have formed a close community. 

But for Daisy, graduation is looming—and so is the prospect of living outside of Penn’s safety net, exposed to the distaste and discrimination that many undocumented immigrants face. 

“It was an easy transition, but it’s becoming very uncertain now because of the elections,” she said. “This is like a safe haven, like a little bubble.” 

Like Daisy, Kami is well aware of the negativity surrounding immigrants and the challenges she could face as a non–citizen. 

“People have this vision of immigration that’s just people flooding the country and trying to steal the U.S. from true Americans,” she said. 

And in an election cycle marked by bitterly divisive rhetoric and a seemingly endless stream of scandals, non–voters at Penn have grown disillusioned with the way immigrants have been portrayed by some politicians seeking to govern them. 

College and Wharton junior Amos Leow, who was born and raised in Singapore, sees Trump’s ascendance as proof that America is not as welcoming to foreigners as it likes to believe. 

“I’m a bit appalled at the sort of antagonism about people from other countries,” he said. “If Trump, for example, does come to power, that means that xenophobia against foreigners is very real.” 

Skepticism and distaste for immigrants, especially among Conservative Americans, has not always been so pointed. Before 2006, Republicans and Democrats’ views on immigrants tracked each other closely, according to Pew Research. 

In the last ten years, though, the issue has become sharply partisan—as of April 2016, 78 percent of Democrats believed that immigrants strengthened the country while only 35 percent of Republicans said the same. 

Democrats vs. Republicans, Immigration
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College senior Emma Jenkins, an international student from Lichfield, England, couldn’t help but notice similarities in the anti–immigrant sentiment that fueled Trump’s rise and the concerns over foreigners that motivated the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. 

“It definitely makes one feel unwelcome,” she said. “International students have a right to be here… It’s essentially saying that we don’t want anyone non–American here.”

However, this election’s focus on anti–immigration has prompted non–citizens who feel targeted by anti–immigrant rhetoric to become more politically active.

Michael Jones–Correa, a political science professor who researches immigration and the political incorporation of immigrants, has found that non–citizens are often just as politically engaged as citizens, if not more. During an election cycle when they have more at stake, they are even more motivated to get involved. 

“This [election], I’m sure, has mobilized people more,” Jones–Correa said. “There’s probably no question that, as immigration is a very high–profile issue, people get more engaged than they would be otherwise, and that’s been truer with every election cycle.”

Although these students cannot participate politically by exercising the fundamental political right, their non–voter status often drives them to engage in other ways. Daisy, a political science major, has been working to register voters on campus even though she is unable to vote herself. 

“I’m doing everything I can on my end to ensure not just that Trump doesn’t get elected, but that people start becoming more civically engaged—that is very important to me.”

Kami, too, says she has been talking to her friends to make sure they’re registered to vote, and even made sure her friend changed his registration so he would be able to vote in Philadelphia. 

Luckily Penn—which has a substantial population of non–citizens—offers several opportunities for political activity outside of just casting a ballot.

“Within the Penn community, doing stuff like registering or maybe even doing work on campaigns can be a substitute for the experience of voting,” said Marc Meredith, a political science professor. 

For other students, the election has provided a unique opportunity to fight for particular political issues, even if voting isn’t an option. 

College junior Linda Lin, who is from Beijing, China, attended Hillary Clinton’s campaign launch in New York City last June. A feminist and advocate of women’s rights, Linda doesn’t think she would pay nearly as much attention if both major party nominees were men. 

“It’s interesting—because this is something that has never happened before,” she said. 

***

Deep down, though, it can be frightening for immigrants and international students to remain on the outside of a presidential election that feels like a turning point in history.

It’s not just that surrogates like Elizabeth Banks and Sara Bareilles visit campus to campaign for Clinton almost weekly, or that Penn’s collection of political student groups have flooded campus with election–related events. 

It’s not just that professors in departments ranging from political science to English have found ways to incorporate the election into their classes, or that department and club listservs are filled with emails exhorting students to vote. 

Talk of the election and the two choices the country faces is omnipresent—and in such a contentious election, citizens have the comfort of being able to exercise their civic duties by voting. Non–citizens, however, get no such comfort, and can only sit back and watch.

“It’s really annoying, because [the election is] going to affect so many people that don’t even get a say in it,” Emma said. “It’s a little bit frustrating.”

Jones–Correa argues that America should take a wider view of what it means to be politically active to accommodate the swath of non–citizens who play a role in elections. 

“I think we need to broaden our definitions of what we mean by politics to move beyond just voting so people are engaged even if they aren’t citizens,” he said. Still, students expressed a sense of frustration with citizens that can vote and yet choose not to. 

As Daisy said, “People see voting as a right, and for us it’s a privilege.”

***

The 2016 presidential election has pushed America to a point of reckoning. Regardless of how the outcome of the election impacts policy, the divisiveness and negativity raised throughout the past 18 months leave America in a vulnerable state. Though the contest will be officially over, the country must grapple with how it will remain unified in the face of the very stark divisions between races, classes, genders and ideologies—particularly when these divisions have been stretched to a breaking point. 

For Mymai Yuan, a College senior from Thailand, the anti–immigrant attitude seeps through the election and trickles into daily life. 

“I don’t think if [Trump is] elected I’m going to get booted out of the country, but there is such divisive language being used within his party that I feel like I will feel the effects even more so than I have in the past few years,” said Mymai. 

For students like Emma, who plan to leave the country after graduation, the consequences of the election are not a pressing concern. But for Daisy and College junior Pamela Fuentes Rodriguez, another undocumented student, the uncertainty is all–consuming. 

“If we get sent back to Mexico—if that’s going to be a thing—what am I going to do? Because I don’t know how to live there,” Pamela worried. “Where are we going to go? Where are we going to live? What’s going to happen?”

Meredith is skeptical that Trump would actually carry out most of his drastic proposals regarding immigration. But even if he doesn’t win the election at all, the swelling hatred for undocumented immigrants in some pockets of America will remain. For Daisy, that’s a terrifying thought.

“What does that mean? Not only for us, for our families, but for everyone who is ‘part of the problem,’ according to them?” she pondered. 

The prospect of having to leave the country after spending most of her life living there and getting an education strikes her as contrary to what she believes America should stand for. 

“We can adapt, I guess, but it sucks to think that you worked so hard... and then to have it all be taken away from you,” she said. “It’s very anti–American.”


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