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Refugees who’ve become legal residents. Immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. Parolees. High-schoolers. They all share a uniting factor: They can’t vote. We spoke to several San Diegans who cannot legally vote about how they grapple with paying taxes and investing in their community without having a say in how it’s run.
In San Diego, they’re all around us.
Refugees who’ve become legal residents. Immigrants who were brought here illegally as children. People who’ve served time in prison and are out on parole. Regular old high school students.
They all share something that unites them: They can’t vote.
We spoke to several San Diegans who cannot legally vote in Tuesday’s election about how they grapple with paying taxes and investing in their community without having a say in how their city and country are run.
All photos by Gabriel Ellison-Scowcroft.
Guillen arrived in San Diego from Mexico City in 1999. She graduated from SDSU three days before Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals – a U.S. program that lets certain immigrants who were brought here illegally as children remain in the country – was announced in June 2012. Guillen now works for Alliance San Diego, the organization that helped her become a DACA recipient, as the group’s immigrant integration coordinator.
“My mom has been involved in her union since I can remember. Even though she couldn’t speak English, she would go out and walk precincts and try to urge other people to vote. I think that’s what inspired me to do this work. It’s difficult to grow up with the idea that for some reason, coming back from work, your mom could be pulled over and she’s just not going to come back, and who’s going to take care of you? My brother and I had to grow up with that as children. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case, that didn’t happen to our family, but we know of many family members who that did happen to. I can’t even find the words to describe how important it is for those people who may take their vote for granted to go out there and do it. Because there are so many voices out there, so many people that are just not going to have their say. Their lives can depend on people who can go out and vote. So for me that’s what’s most important: to persuade those infrequent voters to have a say.”
Kennison will be unable to vote on Tuesday because he is currently on parole. He grew up in Chollas View and was convicted of three felonies at age 21. After serving two years behind bars, he was released on parole in December 2014. In California, some citizens who are incarcerated or on parole for a felony conviction are barred from voting. (Legislation passed in August by San Diego Assemblywoman Shirley Weber preserves voting rights for low-level felons who are serving time in county jails.) It is, however, a common misconception that anyone who has a felony conviction on his or her record is no longer allowed to vote. Kennison will be allowed to register again once he completes his parole term. He is currently a student at San Diego City College and an intern at the American Federation of Teachers.
“Really, it happened when I was in prison. That’s when I started educating myself. When I was in the county jail, we would get the newspaper. I would read the newspaper front to back. I didn’t read the newspaper before that. But then that woke me up to what’s going on in the world. Some of the smartest people are behind prison walls. You have a lot of time to think and a lot of time to learn without the outside world really affecting you. As of right now, I’m trying to get people to vote, I register people to vote. But then I sit back and think ‘Damn, I can’t even vote.’ It feels kind of bad. There’s a lot of propositions that I support, and I wish I could give my input.”
Mubaiwa arrived in the U.S. as a refugee. Although she is now a lawful permanent resident, she is not able to vote because she is not a citizen. Her family left Zimbabwe in 2002 and has been living in the San Diego area ever since. The path to citizenship for lawful permanent residents is complex and time-consuming. Rumbie’s mother became a citizen very recently, but Rumbie has not yet completed the process.
“This is my home but my voice doesn’t matter. You can see me, you can touch me, you can feel me. If I speak you can hear me, but if I speak my voice is muted because I’m not a citizen. I’m telling other people, ‘Look, I know you may not want to vote, but I’m going to need you to vote because I can’t.’ And I can’t tell somebody how to vote but I can encourage them and tell them, ‘Look, this is the stuff that I would vote for or this is stuff I think you should vote for’ and they’ll make their own decisions. I live here. I pay taxes here. I’ve worked since I was 16, so I’ve been paying taxes for a while. It just doesn’t make sense to me that I put money into this country but this country does not allow my voice to be heard.”
Little-Saña, a senior at e3 Civic High School, will not be old enough to vote on Election Day. She is vice chair of the High School Democrats of America and an intern with Rep. Scott Peters’ re-election campaign. She is the daughter of two teachers and, perhaps unsurprisingly, has political ambitions.
“I feel both equally empowered and disenfranchised by the system. I’ve had the great opportunity throughout the course of my high school career to shape the political process, at least on a very small level. At the same time, I do find it frustrating – especially school board and City Council decisions that I have no part of. I legally can’t be a part of decisions about my own party just because you have to be a registered voter and I’m not a registered voter. What I tell all the students I’m involved with is that your voice can sometimes be larger than your vote. I know that if I knock on 100 doors and convince 10 people who maybe otherwise wouldn’t have voted to come out to vote, that that becomes larger than your one vote.”
Carbajal is a Mexican citizen living in the United States. He was born in Guerrero and arrived in San Diego in 1998 with his mother. Jesus graduated from SDSU in May, where he majored in Chicano Studies. He has been a DACA beneficiary since 2012 and is hoping to become a professor so he can return to teach at community college.
“I’ve known that I was undocumented since I was 6 or 7. But I didn’t understand the reality of what that means until I was older. It’s been complicated for me because it’s a difficult line to straddle. Because on the one hand, I’m informed and involved in my community and I have my own opinions and I formulate my own decisions. On the other side, I can’t voice those opinions within voting. But I still live here. So should I care? Should I not care? What are the boundaries for me? It’s like I’m on the outskirts of the boundaries and I’m not sure what to do. So my response to ‘What do I do?’ has been to not engage and not participate in political campaigns. And I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but that’s what my process has been like.”