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She Can't Vote Herself, But This DACA Recipient Is Working To Register Others

Miriam Robles, 24, says she envisions the day she becomes a U.S. citizen and gets to vote the way other people fantasize about their wedding day.
Miriam Robles
Miriam Robles, 24, says she envisions the day she becomes a U.S. citizen and gets to vote the way other people fantasize about their wedding day.

These days, Miriam Robles spends a lot of time on the phone. In between her day job as an environmental justice organizer at Mi Familia Vota, a Latino political advocacy group that opposes President Trump, Robles phone-banks to register new voters.

One new voter she's worked with is her 18-year-old brother, Kevin.

"I was super excited to get him registered," she says. "I helped him fill out his primary ballot and made sure that he applied for [Arizona's] Permanent Early Voting List. For him, he is looking at this fiercely as something that he could do for his family."

Robles says it's a bittersweet feeling, helping her brother perform his civic duty while she is unable to vote.

Their father came to the United States from Mexico through a temporary work program in the '90s. Robles and her mother joined him in Phoenix when she was 3 years old under a visitor's visa. They all stayed. Her brother and sister were born in the U.S. and are citizens, but Robles remained undocumented and applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, better known as DACA, in high school.

DACA is an Obama-era program that currently shields from deportation roughly 640,000 immigrants who were brought into the U.S. as children.

Robles says growing up, there was always a looming fear for the safety of her family.

"That's definitely something that all children of undocumented parents have to go through, whether they're documented or not, is having that conversation of, 'If I get deported, this is what you need to do.' And that's a really scary conversation to have at any age," she says.

"Even today, I'm a 24-year-old, and I still have plans if something were to happen and I know exactly how I would make sure my siblings are safe and things like that."

Only recently has Robles felt comfortable sharing her family's story.

"I grew up in a majority-white neighborhood," she says. "So for me, it was even hard to talk about my status. I have friends who I've known 10 to 15 years, and I'm just now letting them know what my situation is because, you're obviously scared. I've had friends who have had their parents deported because someone called [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] on them."

Of particular concern to Robles is a path toward protected status for her parents, and the DACA program itself.

Shortly after taking office, Trump attempted to dismantle DACA. The Supreme Court recently sided with recipients in protecting the program, but the administration is still trying to scale it back. It has reduced the renewal period for current recipients from two years to one year, which doubles applicant fees, and has stopped processing new applications.

Robles says she feels compelled to speak up now in a year that has brought a national reckoning on racial injustice.

"If I can see Black activists going out there and getting arrested and getting beaten, then why would I not want to do the bare minimum and share my story, you know?"

In her work and activism, Robles often faces a common refrain: that people have no plans to vote.

"They're like, 'Well [the impact of voting is] very marginal.' And so for me, what's been really important is to just come from a place of a lot of vulnerability and say, 'Some of us actually live in those margins and some of us, our lives are decided by those margins.' "

Robles also says it can feel disheartening to push so hard for people to vote, knowing it's not possible for her.

"I definitely get a little sad, but it also gives me hope. I think a lot of people have these fantasies of like what their future [will be] like. A lot of little girls always imagine, 'Oh, my wedding day.' For me, that's always been, 'Oh, the day that I become a citizen and get to vote!' "

Cristina Jiménez, co-founder of United We Dream Action, an immigrant youth-led organization, says people such as Robles are the most effective messengers for political participation.

"When you hear from people whose lives have been impacted by a policy and by how we vote, that really builds the consciousness of people around us, that our vote matters a lot," she says.

It's a story that's personal for Jiménez, too.

"Growing up undocumented, not having the right to vote and living in this country for over 20 years, I will be voting for the first time after becoming a citizen last year," she says. "This is my first presidential election. And when people [ask] me why am I passionate about this election, it's because I have experienced directly how policies that are voted on by elected officials have a direct impact on people's lives."

United We Dream Action is also trying to organize as Trump runs for reelection, four years after building a base of support among mostly white, native-born voters, with an anti-immigrant platform that he's built on while in office.

Though polls show Trump performing better with some minority groups than he did in 2016, his record while in office may help organizers such as Robles make voters who oppose Trump's policies more motivated to turn out than four years ago.

She recalls a conversation with a white man who said he wasn't planning to vote because it wasn't worth it.

"There's a certain subset of Americans who definitely treat politics as a spectator sport as opposed to how I see it as a means of survival," she says. "I did bring up how it's really easy to make these judgment calls when your life and your well-being isn't the one at stake. At that point, I don't know if changed his mind, but he definitely left with that to think about."

Robles says she'll keep having those conversations right up to Election Day.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Barbara Sprunt is a producer on NPR's Washington desk, where she reports and produces breaking news and feature political content. She formerly produced the NPR Politics Podcast and got her start in radio at as an intern on NPR's Weekend All Things Considered and Tell Me More with Michel Martin. She is an alumnus of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship at the National Press Foundation. She is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., and a Pennsylvania native.