Guest Columnist

As you vote, remember your Iowa neighbors who can't

This election will affect immigrants and refugees, but they have no say in the outcome.

A family is photographed outside of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum after the annual U.S. citizen nat
A family is photographed outside of the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum after the annual U.S. citizen naturalization ceremony in West Branch, Iowa on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

In the days ahead, we will witness a historic anomaly. Millions will fill out a ballot and vote for our leaders. Democratic (with a small d) elections have existed for but a small sliver in the history of our species. Even today, many people around the world lack the right and ability to vote in a free and fair election. Such rights and form of government were not free. Many have fought and died to give us the right to vote.

Many inhabitants of this country long to exercise this right, but cannot. They are our neighbors, the parents and older siblings of our children’s schoolmates. They are business owners, medical students, scientists developing COVID-19 vaccines. They are roofers and contractors who repaired your roof and house from damage caused by the derecho.

They pay taxes and work to provide for their children. They struggle to find child care and pray together before dinner. They worry about contracting COVID-19. They grow our food and prepare our dinner.

This election will affect them and their families, but they have no say in the outcome. Unlike many reading this, they were not born in the United States. Some can become citizens in the future. Many cannot. For those who cannot, there is no line for them to wait in, no path to naturalized citizenship. They do not have $1.8 million to invest in the United States. They do not have the highly specialized education or skills to fill one of few jobs that lead to citizenship. They have built a life here and may have a citizen spouse or children, but under current law, these Americans will never receive full membership in the country they call their own. Many fled war or persecution. Others came to join family. Still others fled poverty, and came here seeking a better life. The land of opportunity and freedom beckoned.

As you vote in this election, you should consider how your vote will affect you and your family. Pandemics and natural disasters clarify your family’s needs. You also want the best for our country. You have a stake in this election. But this election has consequences for many who have no voice at the ballot box.

As you vote, remember those who cannot. As you fill out your mail-in ballot, picture the parents of your children’s classmates and explain to them how your vote will affect them. Will your vote help keep this family together? Or will your vote increase the odds that mom or dad will be separated from their children, deported to a country they left years or decades ago, with little to no prospect they could ever be reunited with their children again? Or as you go to vote early, imagine that business owner and explain your vote to them. Will your vote elect officials who will work to allow that business owner to become a citizen so they can continue paying taxes, creating jobs, enriching the community? Or as you go to the polls on Election Day, envision those roofers and contractors who fixed your home after the derecho, who work hard to provide for their children, and explain your vote to them. Will your vote help ensure they can continue to work providing essential services and steady income for their families?

Answer these questions not only in your vote for president. Your choice for president is key for immigrants and refugees because the president appoints people to key leadership positions within the Department of Justice; U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services; Immigration and Customs Enforcement; Customs and Border Protection; the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration; and the Office of Refugee Resettlement. The decisions made by these individuals will intimately affect the lives of these immigrant and refugee families for the next four years and for life. The president also can issue executive and administrative orders that improve the lives of immigrant families, or make their lives a living hell.

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Yet your vote for other federal, state, and local officials also will greatly impact these individuals and families. Laws to help or hurt immigrant families must pass the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives. Think, who are candidates for U.S. Senate and House who will improve the lives of immigrants and refugees? State senators and representatives play a large role in determining the direction of our state and whether Iowa will welcome or spurn our immigrant neighbors. Consider which Iowa state Senate and state representative candidates will welcome them. Local officials, be they county supervisor, mayor, city council or county sheriff, also play an important role in whether our city and county will embrace our immigrant friends.

If you can vote, vote. And as you vote, remember those who can’t.

Caleb Gates has 10 years of experience working with refugees and immigrants. He currently works for the Catherine McAuley Center in Cedar Rapids.

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