Published October 22, 2010
SEATTLE -- When Maria Gianni is knocking on voters' doors, she's not bashful about telling people she is in the country illegally. She knows it's a risk to advertise to strangers that she's here illegally -- but one worth taking in what she sees as a crucial election.
The 42-year-old is one of dozens of volunteers -- many of them illegal immigrants -- canvassing neighborhoods in the Seattle area trying to get naturalized citizens to cast a ballot for candidates like Democratic Sen. Patty Murray, who is in a neck-to-neck race with Republican Dino Rossi.
Pramila Jayapal, head of OneAmerica Votes, says the campaign is about empowering immigrants who may not feel like they can contribute to a campaign because they can't vote.
"Immigrants really do matter," Jayapal said. "If we can't vote ourselves, we're gonna knock on doors, or get family members to vote."
So far the illegal immigrants going door-to-door aren't meeting opposition. Craig Keller, an organizer for Respect WA, a group pushing for stricter immigration law in the Washington, said he doesn't mind illegal immigrants volunteering for vote drives, he just wants to make sure mistakes on the voter rolls don't allow them to vote.
"Anybody can go out and wave a sign, but when it comes to who's making the choices, there's no question they need to be citizens," Keller said.
In close elections across the country, the immigrant and minority vote is considered key for candidates, especially Democrats.
Earlier this week in Nevada, a television ad urging Latinos not to vote sparked outcry from Democrats, who called it a dirty trick meant to keep Hispanics home and boost Republican candidates. Univision and Telemundo -- the nation's two largest Spanish-language networks -- canceled the ad, which the Republican group Latinos for Reform had planned to eventually run in Nevada, Florida, California, Texas and Colorado through the Nov. 2 election.
Seattle is home to a wide array of immigrant communities, from Latinos to east Africans and Asians.
Congress declined this year to consider overhauling the country's immigration law, much to the chagrin of immigrant advocates who had expected Democrats to do so by now.
Still, OneAmerica Votes launched one of the largest get-out-the-vote campaigns in the state on behalf of Democratic candidates. The organization is an offshoot of OneAmerica, one of the state's largest and the most influential immigrant-rights advocacy group.
Through home visits, phone banks and mailings the organization is aiming to reach about 40,000 registered voters in the Seattle area in an attempt to help Democrats gain ground in key races. Volunteers include other types of people who can't vote, such as legal permanent residents.
About 150 volunteers rolled out in nine cities across Washington this past week, knocking on 3,000 doors.
In Bellevue, a city of nearly 123,000 east of Seattle, Gianni knocked on 25 doors and spoke to 15 people, she said.
One man, a naturalized citizen from the Philippines, said he knew what she was going through after she shared she was in the country illegally.
"There's always a risk," Gianni said in Spanish about her legal status. "But if there's a change, I would feel like I contributed, even in a small part, to a change we all need."
Gianni arrived in the United States on a visa 13 years ago looking for work and stayed. For a while her only son lived here, but has since moved back to Mexico.
"In order for there to be a change to our broken immigration system," she said, "I believe one has to fight."