The exterior of the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights building. TIRRC is one of several local organizations helping asylum seekers and refugees to their homes with relatives ion the U.S.(Photo: John Partipilo)
Efforts to increase voter participation among immigrant communities led to increased turnout and elections of immigrant-rights candidates, said advocates.
Following the August 4 primary election, the Tennessee Immigrant and Rights Coalition’s affiliate TIRRC Votes celebrated the election of several pro-immigrant candidates among school board races, district attorney races and other elected positions.
“Our TIRRC Votes (staff) were in 10 different cities, from urban cities like Memphis, suburban neighborhoods in Chattanooga, to rural streets in Gallatin, building a pro-immigrant political landscape where all communities can belong and thrive,” said TIRRC Votes Policy Coordinator Luis Mata. “We are so proud of our 12 Civic Engagement Coordinators, representing eight different countries, that reached nearly 68,000 voters.”
“We want to make one thing clear: turning the tide across the South would not be possible without Tennessee’s growing Black and brown political power and we are determined to carry this momentum to the general election,” said Mata.
In State Senate District 19, Charlane Oliver won the Democratic nomination for the Nashville seat despite facing criticism for not being an “established” candidate and her participation in several protests, according to TIRRC Votes director Lisa Sherman Luna in a press release.
In Davidson County, candidates competed for the first time in partisan school board races, and all candidates endorsed by TIRRC Votes won, including incumbent Rachael Ann Elrod, Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, Erin O’Hara and Cheryl D. Mayes.
We want to make one thing clear: turning the tide across the South would not be possible without Tennessee's growing Black and brown political power and we are determined to carry this momentum to the general election.
– Luis Mata, TIRRC Votes
In District 6, Mayes defeated incumbent Fran Bush and attributed her win to the immigrant community.
“I do believe that the immigrant population played a vital role in my campaign. I had the pleasure to meet with and speak at several cultural events with a high population of immigrant attendees, and was very excited about the ongoing engagement after the events,” said Mayes, who previously served on the MNPS board 2010-2014. “TIRRC (Votes) was very welcoming and promoted the Democratic campaigns often. Additionally, I met with other members of the immigrant community who also promoted my campaign to others in the community,” she said.
Although immigrants have long been part of the fabric of Middle Tennessee, efforts to reach members of immigrant communities during elections has only in recent years become a priority.
According to Wan Rashid, co-founder of the Effendi Foundation, volunteers and staff launched a coordinated campaign across the nation and Tennessee to provide Kurdish and Muslim households with voter information through mailers, canvassing, texting and phone calls.
During the 2020 presidential elections, voter turnout among Muslim and Kurdish communities increased significantly, said Rashid, adding that the Effendi Foundation has the biggest database on Kurdish communities in the nation.
This year, Effendi staff worked alongside the American Muslim Advisory Council of Tennessee to have both Republican and Democratic candidates interact with community members virtually or in person at local mosques.
Mosques were also encouraged to use their newsletters and conducted sermons on why voting in local elections is important.
“I won’t say that (voter participation) is brand new. There have been people who have done this work before me in different ways and manners, but in relation to canvassing, sending out mailers and calling, that’s more recent and in the past three years with our (Kurdish) community,” said Rashid.
Getting immigrant communities to participate in local elections is becoming increasingly important.
With partisan school board elections and established immigrant communities getting pushed out of Nashville due to increased housing costs, advocates have increased their efforts to educate the population about how local elections impact them.
“It’s not just immigrant communities, it’s everyone, all voters. Presidential elections get a lot more coverage, a lot more airtime,” said Sabina Mohyuddin, AMAC executive director.
“But these are elected officials who make rules against you as immigrant communities living in Tennessee,” she added.
Culturally-relevant outreach helped increase voter turnout, such as texting “salaam,” a common greeting among Muslims.
“‘Here is someone greeting me in a common religious saying, and asking me to vote,’ That will potentially get someone to want to vote, as well as feeling heard and seen,” said Rashid.
According to a TIRRC Votes press release, members were able to contact nearly 70,000 voters throughout the state, including 35,000 voters in Memphis.
One race TIRRC Votes focused efforts on led to former Shelby County Commissioner Steven Mulroy defeating Shelby County District Attorney incumbent Amy Weirich.
“This is not me indicating that the Republican or Democrat party is right but that an incumbent lost, and that should be impressive in of itself. The voter turnout must have been high,” said Rashid.
Immigrant-rights organizations are now preparing to increase voter turnout for the 2022 midterm elections in November, which is not an easy task.
With many immigrant communities residing along Murfreesboro Pike, Nolensville Road and Antioch, few polling locations currently exist.
“A future dream is having a polling location in a more central area or a mosque, like they do at schools and churches,” said Rashid.
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