Never Mind the Ballots

It is South Florida's YET-to-be-registered immigrant voters who could swing the 2004 presidential election

Mi Familia canvassers cannot promote any particular party or candidate, but they can answer questions about where the parties stand on specific issues. That information could go a long way toward shaping the community's political consciousness. "If Mi Familia is truly able to register 50,000 people," Bendixen says, "they could become the swing vote in this election."

Together with another nonprofit, Unite for Dignity, Mi Familia Vota is offering two six-week leadership training programs specifically for Mi Familia's staff. "At the end of this," he explains, "if I have five people who work as a legislative assistant or a clerk in some politician's office, that's five more leaders than we had before."

When Mursuli met Pereira on a ten-day bus trip last October, he saw a natural leader. Though never politically active before, the former chef read about the Immigrant Rights Freedom Ride in a periodiquito during a break from the kitchen. Frustrated by the slow pace of his application for permanent residency since he sold his business in Tegucigalpa and moved his family to Miami in 1995, Pereira decided to make the symbolic journey from Miami to a massive immigrants rights march in New York City.

Jonathan Postal
Rose Assinthe (left) and Gisele Florvil discuss strategy
Jonathan Postal
Rose Assinthe (left) and Gisele Florvil discuss strategy

Mursuli asked Pereira to oversee the field operations of the Mi Familia drive in South Florida. The Honduran in turn called on people he had met on the Freedom Ride, such as Edith Ingunza, a Peruvian activist he hired as a team captain. He called graduates he met during a Unite for Dignity Leadership training session last fall. Of the 70 people in Unite for Dignity's first crop of graduates, as many as 20 are currently working on voter drives. On this Friday Pereira hustles Ingunza's team off to Westland Gardens, a condo complex north of the Westland Mall in Hialeah, in a brown van with Mi Familia's phone number on the side.

In the pocket of poverty between Belle Meade and Shorecrest, the minivan carrying the Caribbean Power Vote workers pulls off Biscayne Boulevard and parks in front of St. Anthony's Oasis. The faded yellow complex might have been a bustling motel maybe 50 years ago, but now the cramped efficiencies house newly arrived immigrants and native-born Americans down on their luck. After being dropped off, the women fan out along the complex's concrete walkways.

Strictly speaking, they are not employed by ACT. The Service Employees International Union, Miami local SEIU 1199, makes up their "lost wages" while they are on leave so the CNAs can "volunteer" for ACT. Currently SEIU has 300 people "volunteering" on various voter drives nationwide through a program called "Heroes." There are at least 100 Heroes in Florida alone, with six at the Caribbean Power Vote and twelve at Mi Familia Vota. By the fall, the union plans to have at least 2004 paid Heroes drumming up votes nationwide.

The Heroes can register voters, record political views, and talk generally about issues, but cannot recommend a candidate. Campaign finance law prohibits anyone associated with ACT from promoting any particular individual or party. That's all right by Gisele Florvil; most of the folks she meets seem already to have made up their minds. As pollster Bendixen points out, "With the Haitian and Jamaican community there is more of a marked tendency for the Democratic Party." Extrapolating from his survey of Hispanics, Bendixen suggests a similar ratio might apply between the registered and the unregistered among Haitian and West Indian immigrants eligible to vote. Making what he calls "very much a guess," Bendixen says that since there are roughly 100,000 registered Caribbean voters, there are likely another 50,000 who are eligible but not registered.

If that is true, Florvil is having a hard time finding them. Crisscrossing the tiny courtyards, she calls out in Kreyol while tapping on doors: "Are you a U.S. citizen? Is anyone here a U.S. citizen?"

Finally, after a long streak of shaking heads and dismayed expressions, Florvil finds someone. A man in his thirties opens the door, tugging self-consciously at his boxer shorts. Yes, he is a citizen, he says in Kreyol. No, he is not yet registered. The man steps over an open textbook on the floor to take Florvil's clipboard. Following the script she knows by rote, she asks if he tends toward Bush or Kerry. "Kerry," he says, without looking up from the form. Suddenly switching to English, he adds: "Kerry, all the way."

Up and down the halls of Westland Gardens, it's no go. There are five buildings in the complex, with four stories in each building and twelve condos on every floor. On a Friday evening the hallways smell of fried steak, onions, and cumin. Nearly everyone who opens the door speaks in the rapid-fire Spanish of recent Cuban arrivals: I don't have the papers for that; We're not citizens; I don't think that I can vote; I don't have time right now; I'm already registered; I'm taking a bath.

In a nearly neutral accent, Carlos Pereira replies with good cheer: It's very important that you register when you become a citizen; Make sure you get out to vote. When no one answers, he leaves a flyer hanging on the doorknob with a phone number for Mi Familia Vota. "I try to deliver the message at every single door," he explains. "The people aren't educated politically, especially in this neighborhood." Voter education is important to Pereira; not yet a citizen, he can't vote himself.

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