Immigration debate boosts voter registration on U.S. border

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EL PASO – This border city has seen an increase in nearly 50,000 eligible voters during this season’s contentious U.S. presidential campaign.

Some political observers say the increase in local residents who have registered to vote in November’s election between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton may be a reaction to Trump’s harsh rhetoric on illegal immigration as well as negative statements he’s made in public about people of color. Trump has called for building an impenetrable border wall between the U.S. and Mexico and having Mexico pay for it. During one primary campaign speech, he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists.”

Jose Zubiate

Jose Zubiate

“This is the first time time I will actually vote, so at 29 I actually had to learn what the registering process is,” said Jose Zubiate, an English major at UT El Paso. The 29-year-old Navy veteran said he didn’t necessarily agree with either of the two major party candidates, but feels that billionaire Trump’s views “are racist” and it is his duty to vote for former New York Senator and First Lady Clinton.

According to the El Paso County Elections Department, 422,570 people were registered to vote as of Sunday, Oct. 9. That is a 7 percent increase over the number of voters registered in November 2015. Since the last presidential election in 2012, the number of registered voters in El Paso has increased by 12 percent.

in Texas and New Mexico, where voter registration ends on Oct. 11, Republicans and Democrats have been out in force trying to get people to register to vote with a host of different events and initiatives.

“I know how easy it is to become discouraged and to think that our votes don’t matter. But they really do,” said El Paso County Democratic Party Chairwoman, Iliana Holguin. “Right now is a very difficult time for our country. There is a lot of division, there is a lot of negativity about the state of our country. But what we have to remember is that we are the strongest when we come together and work together.”

The El Paso County Democrat Party registered 50 new volunteer deputy registrars since the beginning of August, making a total of 200 who were authorized to register voters.

The El Paso County Republican party has about 80 deputy registrars who went out to events, including naturalization ceremonies, where they encouraged new citizens to sign up to vote immediately.

In nearby New Mexico, Silver City resident Izelle Matthes has lived in the U.S. for nine years and said she decided to become a U.S. citizen for a couple of reasons – to get a U.S. passport for traveling internationally and to get a concealed carry permit to carry a gun. While she is intrigued by the idea of electing the nation’s first woman president, she is choosing to support Donald Trump.

“I decided to side with a Republican because I felt, as an immigrant, that Donald Trump pointed out a lot more towards immigration that he wanted to work on. I feel he addresses it a lot more than Hillary Clinton at this point,” said Mathis, a systems administrator in information technology at Western New Mexico State University.

The desire to have a voice by casting a ballot is the main reason some longtime Mexican immigrants are choosing now to become citizens, according to Holguin of the El Paso County Democrats.

“I think a lot of immigrants who’ve been living here in the U.S. as permanent residents for many years … are finally seeing how important it is to take that step of becoming a U.S. citizen and being able to vote,” Holguin said.

She added that “a lot of the negative rhetoric, especially concerning immigrants and immigrant communities, that’s been going around during this campaign” has motivated some Latinos who have not voted in past elections to vote this time.

“Our voice needs to be heard in order to be taken into consideration in the future for the well-being of our families,” said Laura Leticia Ponce Velázquez, who attended a recent Democratic Party voter registration rally in far East El Paso.

The El Paso Democrats have focused their voter registration efforts primarily on young people, including rallies on college campuses and a battle of the bands event. One initiative targeted high school students who were eligible to vote.

Both parties have been doing block walks and running phone banks, not just to urge people to vote for their presidential candidate but also to promote local races, such as sheriff, state representative, congressional district and constables.

“When we get a chance to talk about their values as part of the block walking and/or the phone banking, people generally agree that the values are different than they thought they were and they’re willing to listen. So that’s been going very good for us,” said Republican Party Chairman Adolpho Telles.

For the next phase of the campaign the parties will now turn to efforts to get people to the polls to vote. El Paso Democrats have also been training precinct chairs to get out the vote. They are using a database, produced by the Texas Democrat, to tailor their block walking materials and appeal to each district’s needs.

El Paso Democrat representatives will be visiting senior centers during early voting and offering residents a ride to the voting sites., Early voting in El Paso runs from Monday, Oct. 24 through Friday, Nov. 4. New Mexico early voting runs from Oct. 11 through Nov. 4.

Holguin hopes that El Paso can achieve a 50 percent voter turnout this year.

“Here in El Paso we’ve had the most voter turnout in the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012. But in those two elections, we still didn’t hit 50 percent voter turnout,” she said. “In the 2012 election, we hit about 46 (percent) voter turnout, in 2008 we hit about 49 (percent).”

For information on registration, early voting or polling stations in El Paso County, visit the El Paso County Elections Department website.

Election 2016 Latino Vote

This story is part of  Election 2016 Latino Vote, a series in partnership with New Mexico in Depth, UTEP’s Borderzine.com and NMSU’s Kokopelli-nmsu.com

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