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Young people in Minnesota make up a voting block big enough to sway close elections. So do voters from immigrant families. 

In 2016, the number of votes cast by youth voters was ten times higher than Hillary Clinton’s margin of victory in Minnesota. The Center for Information & Research on Civic Learning and Engagement (CIRCLE) ranks Minnesota eighth among states where voters ages 18 to 29 have the biggest potential for impact in this year’s presidential election.


Naturalized immigrants make up another significant portion of the electorate, comprising 6 percent of eligible voters in Minnesota, according to Pew Research Center. That number has tripled since 2000.

At the intersection of these demographics are first-time voters with immigrant backgrounds — young people who are naturalized immigrants themselves or are children of immigrant parents. 

The results of Tuesday’s election will in large measure determine how the United States approaches divisive issues that affect the young, immigrants and many other Americans. They include President Donald Trump’s anti-immigration policies, the pandemic, healthcare, race relations, and climate change.  

Sahan Journal interviewed first-time presidential voters from immigrant backgrounds about their political priorities and what this election means to them. Here are their responses. They have been edited for clarity.

Nahili Abdullahi, 18, Plymouth

Oromo

The George Floyd killing was definitely the most impactful for me. This was kind of the first time America took a stand, and you have people from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds. Because what happened — it was very unjust, and anybody could see that, so everyone was just coming together. I thought that was very powerful. More

Jesus Cazares-Reyes, 18, Windom

Mexican and Nicaraguan

My mom came in 1995, and when she moved to southern Minnesota, there weren’t any ethnic stores/grocery stores. She’d be stared down and monitored while she walked down the aisle. More

Beatriz Chonay, 18, Worthington

Salvadoran and Guatemalan

I used to work in fast food service and it felt scary because you’re interacting with so many people and you don’t know who has coronavirus and when interactions can get you sick. More

Say Moo, 18, St. Paul

Karen

I was born in Thailand and was 7 years old when I moved to the U.S. I already voted by mail. 

I voted for Biden. I think every issue is important and I think Biden has what I’m looking for, at least more than Trump. Like the immigrant issues, I think Trump hasn’t handled it well and has brought a lot of stigma to it. More

Dieu Do, 21, Virginia

Vietnamese

I went on a field trip when I was 7, and met the mayor of my hometown. She was the first woman to be elected mayor, which was to me a big deal. More

Nahili Abdullahi, 18, Plymouth

Oromo

The George Floyd killing was definitely the most impactful for me. This was kind of the first time America took a stand, and you have people from all walks of life, all kinds of backgrounds. Because what happened — it was very unjust, and anybody could see that, so everyone was just coming together. I thought that was very powerful. 

I’m for (police) reform, I would say, because I don’t think we as a country are stable enough to not have any sort of security — not that the current police are helping anyone other than the majority. But I think a world without police is ideal but it’s not realistic. 

I know that Biden wants affordable healthcare. That’s something that I absolutely stand by. I understand the impact of it more now than I did in previous years because my mom used to work at a huge healthcare company, and this past year she had to switch jobs. We had healthcare through the previous company, but now I see how much healthcare really is. For a family of five, we’re paying a lot of money right now. 

I absolutely, 100 percent, think it’s important to vote. We saw that last election, when Hillary won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. Every vote matters. 

I feel like our generation is more involved than the previous one. We’re getting our information from a variety of sources. We’re interested in learning about these things! I was tuning into the presidential debate because I wanted to, not because my parents wanted me to, but because I wanted to know more about the issues. 

I believe voting is a privilege, and not one we should take for granted. Back home in Oromia, where my parents are from, there’s a lot of ethnic violence. 

If the people back home aren’t being allowed to share their opinions and vote, because we have the freedom to do so, we have to go out and do everything in our power to exercise that right here in America. 

Jesus Cazares-Reyes, 18, Windom

Mexican and Nicaraguan

My mom came in 1995, and when she moved to southern Minnesota, there weren’t any ethnic stores/grocery stores. She’d be stared down and monitored while she walked down the aisle. 

I thought I was white for the longest time, since I’d never seen another family of color. But then I found out I wasn’t. I was in kindergarten. I don’t know how it was brought up, but it was the 2008 election and they mentioned that Obama was the first possible Black president. And I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s weird, since there’s only been white people, like us.’ And then they were like, ‘But you’re not white, though.’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean, I’m not white?’ It brought up this whole conversation at home. 

I know that many people in my hometown want to vote for Trump because he was mainly focusing on rural farming communities, but for me personally, the way he’s treated my people, I just don’t want that.

During the 2018 midterm election I was an election judge in my town, and just seeing people reacting to me being an election judge — they were like, ‘Oh, you’re here,’ that kind of situation — made me want to vote against (Trump).

I remember this one white older woman.She came up to me and she questioned me. She was like, ‘Where are you from?’ And I’m just like, oh, so this it what we’re doing — okay. So I was like ‘Well, I’m from Windom,’ but I wanted her to ask — and eventually she did. She was like ‘No, but where are you truly from?’

A lot of policies that matter to me are immigration. I’ve seen it, growing up with my parents. 

My mom became a resident in ‘98 and then she became a citizen in 2008. With my dad, he’s tried four times. The first time he got scammed by lawyers, then the third time he ran out of money. He tried again in 2016, then obviously Trump was in office, and it’s been very hard. The wait times and the cost have increased since my mom did it back in the 2000s. I want to say we’ve spent roughly $25,000 on his immigration, and it’s worse now that COVID is going on and immigration offices are closed. 

He went to the border for an interview in mid-February 2018. He filled out the application and he should’ve been back in a week. That’s what the goal was. However, Trump added a new part to the application, from my understanding, which we did not fill out because we were told it wasn’t necessary. And because of that, he’s been stuck in Mexico since 2018. It’ll be three years in February. 

To me voting is the truest form to act as an American. We are in charge, really. We just use these people as representatives. So to vote is just to have your voice heard. 

Beatriz Chonay, 18, Worthington

Salvadoran and Guatemalan

I used to work in fast food service and it felt scary because you’re interacting with so many people and you don’t know who has coronavirus and when interactions can get you sick. My job didn’t start providing us masks until two or three months ago, and there’s still lots of customers who don’t wear them. 

The meat packaging workers and workers in the field are maybe 75 percent immigrants. When the pandemic started, they stopped working for a while. But sadly, because of the president, the employees had to go back because of (an executive order deeming meat processing plants ‘essential operations’). And even when they stopped the plant for a while, I know some people were still having to go to work.

Right now there’s almost no work for people besides the meat packing plant, which is very risky with COVID. I know people with college degrees who can’t get a simple job because of the pandemic. So I’m keeping that in mind with my vote. I wouldn’t know how to handle a pandemic, but I think there needs to be help for people who lost their jobs or can’t find jobs, and who have families. 

Coming from parents that are immigrants who don’t have the right to vote, it’s a privilege for me to vote because it’s what I want to do with my rights and my morals and beliefs. It’s just something that we should be excited for, and everyone should be proud of. When you vote, you’re making an impact for yourself and for the next generation. 

There’s so many things that have to be done and put into place. I think for me right now, since I come from a background of immigrants and my town is so diverse, and the population is undocumented folks, I want to see immigrant issues handled first.

Say Moo 18, St. Paul

Karen 

I was born in Thailand and was 7 years old when I moved to the U.S. I already voted by mail. 

I voted for Biden. I think every issue is important and I think Biden has what I’m looking for, at least more than Trump. Like the immigrant issues, I think Trump hasn’t handled it well and has brought a lot of stigma to it. 

And climate change, for example. Trump doesn’t really take it seriously, and I know Biden would take it more seriously than him. I think the older generation is thinking more about money and jobs rather than thinking about the consequences in the future. It’s just general disrespect of the Earth. 

I think it’s important to vote because the people you vote for affect the policies that control people’s rights. Especially for us young people, if you’re able to vote and you don’t vote, it’s like saying, ‘I don’t really care what happens to me in the future.’

I volunteer to help get out the vote with the Asian American Organizing Project. 

I’m one of the older kids. I don’t have a lot of friends that are the same age that can vote now. But I do know some of them are enthusiastic about getting people to vote. I’m in a program where they try to get people to vote, making phone calls to make sure people are registered to vote. 

Dieu Do, 21, Virginia

Vietnamese

I went on a field trip when I was 7, and met the mayor of my hometown. She was the first woman to be elected mayor, which was to me a big deal. I remember talking to her, and I didn’t understand what she did because I was 7. But I could feel her passion, and that she truly cared and brought her heart to work every day. 

I went home and told my parents I wanted to run for office, and they were like, ‘Dieu, we support you, we love you, but politics is a white man’s game. You’re not going to get anywhere.’ They were real with me!

So for the longest time, I didn’t want to pursue it. A key part of why I’m going into politics now is that I got into my dream school, which is Hamline. Why wouldn’t I? I’m in St. Paul, the Capitol is right there. 

I actually decided that I’m going to run for Congress in four years. I’ve made that decision and I’m going to work towards it. 

I’m not afraid to share that I come from a lower socioeconomic class background. My parents worked intense, physical labor jobs 60 to 70 hours a week to make sure that my sister and I could get through school. I was fortunate that we had food on the table every night, but as I grew up, I realized that my parents never went to the doctor or the dentist unless it was an emergency. 

I feel like this is a theme with immigrant families that I’ve talked to. We can’t go to the doctor to prevent illness — we go when we have it. So healthcare is an issue near and dear to my heart. 

Criminal justice reform is also really important to me. My dad was racially profiled a lot by local law enforcement and no one ever believed us. One time there was a hit-and-run on the highway with a white driver in a white truck, and my dad happened to be driving his white truck on the highway at the same time. The police stopped my dad on the highway and asked if he did the hit-and-run. I had to go pick him up at the station and I tried explaining, ‘You know he’s an immigrant, right? He can speak English, but he has a very heavy accent.’But they kept saying he was incoherent and couldn’t drive.

Madison McVan

Madison McVan is a freelance reporter based in Minneapolis. Before moving to Minnesota, she covered state government for the Columbia Missourian and the coronavirus pandemic for Missouri Info Corps.