By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
For a Filipino family of four living in Washington state, getting involved in politics was the last thing on their minds. The mother was in the hospital with a brain tumor. The father, who had been doing business here for 10 years, was counting on an immigration lawyer to clear their hurdles and get them citizenship. But the attorney fell through. And the immigration bureau vowed to deport the family, “even if they had to carry the mother out from the hospital,” according to Ellen Abellera, an advocate who assisted the family.
The subsequent political lobbying that the family was able to do, with the help of Abellera, who at the time was the chair of the Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs, can serve as a role model for other immigrants facing any issues—and the necessity of getting involved in civic engagement.
“The first thing I tell them is that if they have an issue, they need to contact their legislators to get their voices heard,” said Abellera, in an interview.
Beyond that, Abellera and others outlined a whole variety of ways that immigrants can impact the voting process, get their needs met, and participate in local politics.
Through joining advocacy groups, signing up for the City of Seattle’s Democracy Voucher program, and reaching out to elected officials, even those who are green card holders—and not yet voters—can have a significant impact on policies that affect their lives in ways they might not have dreamed of.
It can save your life
For the Filipino family (their name is withheld for privacy), with the help of Abellera, they were able to reach the governor at the time, their senators, their state senators, and even then President George Bush, through a visiting official from the Philippines. A local Filipino American advocacy group held a rally when Bush was visiting a hotel in Bellevue. Abellera was able to get letters written by many of the officials and local advocates passed on to Bush.
As a result, they were granted a new opportunity to apply for citizenship. Today, the two daughters, who at the time were young children, are registered nurses.
“So, like their parents, they are giving back to the community,” said Abellera.
Call your state legislators
But not all issues need to be so dire. According to Shomya Tripathy, director of policy and civic engagement at the Asian Counseling and Referral Service (ACRS), local government agencies as well as legislators want to know the needs of the residents who live in their communities, whether they are voters or not. Metro King County, for instance, established a work group with ACRS to determine whether or not it made sense to eliminate cash fares, among other changes.
ACRS brought one of its case managers, who works with immigrants, into the room, and he explained that all of his clients used cash on buses. Metro listened.
In the same way, Abellera urges immigrants, if they have any problems, to contact their local legislators.
She urges them to first determine who is their representative, then to simply call his or her office, or if they don’t feel confident in English, to have someone else do it. The legislative assistant will take down the caller’s name and concerns and either the legislator or an assistant will call back.
“The legislators are open to this because they need to know the issues of people in their district,” said Abellera.
First and even second-generation immigrants, however, may be cautious about using such an approach or even registering to vote, after a green card is obtained.
Port Commissioner Sam Cho, who is also president of the Washington Chapter of the Korean American Coalition (KAC), said that some immigrants come from countries with authoritarian backgrounds, which may dissuade them from getting involved in the civic process.
“The trauma of fleeing from political or religious persecution is passed down,” he said.
Still, he said, immigrants can join advocacy groups or register for unique programs such as the Democracy Voucher Program.
Even without a vote, support a candidate
The Democracy Voucher Program makes it possible for both registered voters and permanent residents who are not yet citizens to support candidates by donating funds to the candidates of their choice. The city automatically mails these vouchers—there are four of them, each worth $25—to every registered voter.
Green card holders can apply for them through a simple form online and designate what language they want to receive them in.
When it comes time to vote, immigrants can select from all the candidates that have chosen to accept these vouchers (most do) and send them to any one of them. That candidate will then receive that amount of money from the city’s coffers.
The program, which was approved by voters in 2015, is a way to address both campaign finance reform and to involve all residents in the political process, said Renee LeBeau, manager of the program.
Just show up for services
Just being associated with the many service providers that assist immigrants in King County is another way for immigrants to learn about the political process and how to get their voices heard. ACRS distributes materials about democracy vouchers and other programs in food bags in the languages of their clients. At the same time, the organization models civic engagement for its clients by making public comments in the legislature and advocating for its clients.
“We take a more holistic approach, we understand civic engagement as meaning that people understand they have access to avenues that will impact and change their lives, such as all the tools that are out there and options for making public comments,” said Tripathy.
Such issues might include if the bus line doesn’t go where needed or library closures. “But this education has to be melded into other programs we provide for it to be the most effective,” she said.
Overcoming language issues
Language can be one of the major barriers for immigrants to get involved in the political process. Even for longtime residents, who are citizens and have the right to vote, it is not always self-evident how to ask for election, or other, materials in a language other than English. Voters must be able to identify democracy vouchers mailed to them in envelopes that do have markings in multiple languages but are primarily in English. If they only open the envelopes, there is an insert inside in multiple languages that allows them to ask for vouchers to be resent to them in their native language.
For immigrants, language issues may be even worse. Advocacy groups hold election and other civic education programs on radio shows or YouTube channels in native languages. For instance, KAC holds a candidate forum on Korean radio shortly before the election (information can be found on the KAC home page).
“It is important to follow the issues and the candidates even if you are not voting,” said Abellera.
Beyond the daily struggles
Many immigrants are struggling just with basic needs, food, housing, and language. But Tripathy said ACRS has come to realize that you cannot separate those essential needs from the broader political environment. “The politics of the city fully impacts how we can support our marginalized communities,” she said. “We all have to get involved.”
To register for democracy vouchers, visit seattle.gov/democracyvoucher/i-am-a-seattle-resident/apply-now.
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.