On a rainy Saturday morning, when others slept warm and dry at home, dozens of people stood drenched and cold outside Casa Azafran waiting for their turn to vote. Although very few brought umbrellas, they held their resilience against the rain on their shoulders to participate in this civic duty.
For the 2020 presidential elections, early voting records have been broken in Tennessee, a state known for low voter turnout. More than 1.4 million Tennesseans voted early, according to the Tennessee Secretary of State’s office, which is a significant increase from previous election years.
The immigrant community has been especially active this year, with organizations such as TIRRC Votes mobilizing many first time voters. At Casa Azafran, lines have continuously curled around the building, with eager citizens waiting hours to vote.
“It’s so cool to see that thanks to our efforts, a lot of people are understanding how important their voices are, especially the refugee and immigrant communities members who know that their voices are going to be counted in the 2020 elections,” said Pratik Dash, civic engagement manager at TIRRC Votes, which is affiliated with Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC).
These first-time voters, many young, said they’re representing their fellow immigrants, especially those who can’t vote themselves but are still affected by government decisions.
“If we show our numbers, when it comes to our immigrant communities, that’s really strong because our politicians can’t ignore that,” said Wan Rashid, a 23-year-old voting in a presidential election for the first time.
Rashid immigrated to the U.S. from Bashur, Iraq when she was a child in 1996. While attending college, Rashid missed out on the 2016 presidential election, and 2020’s events — protests, pandemic — made her realize the country’s issues will eventually affect her, especially as a minority.
“I may have come here 23 years ago with my family because of unforeseen circumstances in my home country but that doesn’t mean that I’m any less than anyone else,” she said.
Rashid voted this year for the first time in a presidential election and represents Tennessee’s Kurdish community, the biggest in the U.S.
She works at a non-profit for the Kurdish community educating people on their civic rights and wants to remind her community, which consists of about 20,000 members in Nashville, that the immigrant community has a voice that politicians can’t ignore.
“It’s important that I do my civic duty as an individual in America because I’m going to live here. I’m going to pay taxes. I’m going to have children one day and everything that happens is going to impact me,” she said.
As part of a younger generation of immigrants, Rashid became involved in TIRRC Votes to encourage her peers to participate in voting.
“We can really make a change and an impact with our ideology that’s different from those of older generations,” said Rashid.
Duretti Ahmad, 19, had been looking forward to casting her vote since early childhood. As a first-generation immigrant, she observed her Ethiopian parents from the Oromo ethnic group vote at every single general and presidential election. Political discussions were often a family activity.
“It’s always been stressed in my household. We’ve always talked about presidential candidates around election time. It’s something we’ve always followed,” said Ahmad.
As soon as she turned 18, she registered and was able to vote in the presidential election for the first time this year.
Ahmad then became involved in TIRRC Votes to encourage others to vote, especially her peers. Although she worries that young people are not active in politics, she wants them to know that “every vote that’s not cast means something, whether we believe it or not.”
Overall she’s seen some political activity in her generation, especially after the series of chaotic events of this year, which has solidified the importance of voting for her community.
“Being a black, Muslim woman has impacted my entire life in so many different fields, so anything that’s related to religion, the Muslim ban and being black, that’s important to me,” she said.
Juan Aguilar, 19, voted for the first time this year despite his family’s reluctance to vote due to their religious beliefs. As a Mexican immigrant, he found that while his family believed religion impeded them from voting, still other community members were unable to vote due to legal status. As he became involved in TIRRC Votes to get other people his age involved, Aguilar wanted to represent his family and other immigrant concerns.
“It’s my civic duty as an immigrant to carry out that privilege to help out other brothers and sisters who can’t vote,” he said.
It’s been a struggle to get young people to vote, but he reminds his peers that change is possible, “if you’re willing to put in the work.”
High schools don’t do a good job of teaching politics, added Aguilar, and recommended young voters educate themselves on local government figures.
“Get active civically just by looking at Nashville.gov… and what are some dates to keep in mind to go vote.”
Stacy Morales, 29, was born in California but raised in Mexico until she was 10. Her family moved to Coffee County, Tennessee in 2007. Manchester has a small but growing Hispanic community, so in 2011 Morales decided to help out wherever she could. She translated materials, eventually starting a Facebook page to help others understand what was going on in their community.
Morales became a notary and often volunteers to help community members with legal paperwork. Although she followed all the news concerning immigration and issues that affected the Hispanic community, she never considered voting important.
“[My parents ] never mentioned anything about voting, so I just let it pass. I really didn’t think it was that important until this year,” said Morales.
After getting involved with TIRRC Votes and spending the summer encouraging others to vote, Morales voted for the first time this year before the last presidential debate.
She remembers getting angry about President Donald Trump deflecting the blame for having immigrant children in cages on the border.
“Trump was telling Biden, who made those cages. I was like maybe Joe did it and started it, but the question wasn’t who made them, but who used them, and Trump used them. That is pretty upsetting to me,” she said.
Through her vote, Morales wants to represent others, especially DACA recipients like her sister.
“It took me a long [time] to realize how important it is to vote for people who can’t vote,” she said.