Image: United We Dream

HOUSTON, TEXAS — On the Saturday before election day, Hector Angeles, 20, and Oscar Cedillo, 17, were knocking on doors to get out the vote for Beto O’Rourke, dressed in bright orange shirts that read “Here to Stay.” The two, both members of the immigrant rights group United We Dream Action, were canvassing in a largely Mexican-American neighborhood in southeastern Houston, filled with leafy blocks lined with orange and pecan trees and charming, if somewhat shabby, small, wood-paneled homes. Part of Hector’s elevator pitch for O’Rourke? “He’s not Ted Cruz,” a line he repeated over and over throughout the course of the day.

At the moment, early into their shift, Hector was looking for a good rock, or even a pecan, to use to knock on the metal gates that surround many of the homes in the neighborhood. “A rock is good because it won’t leave a mark,” he said. (Another United We Dream volunteer, he shared, once found and used a conch shell.)

Unsuccessful, he used a Bic pen to bang on the gate of the house he was canvassing. After a few tries, he turned, shaking his head. “They’re not home.” Oscar wedged a flyer into the gate, and, consulting the get out the vote app on Hector’s phone, went off to the next house. There, a woman opened the door, and the three chatted for a few moments. “She said they’re already planning to vote, so that’s good,” Hector said afterwards, noting the interaction in his cell phone app.

Both Hector and Oscar, like much of United We Dream’s membership, are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. That also means they can’t vote. So for young people like Hector, encouraging others to cast a ballot is one way they feel they can participate in the process. “I can’t vote. You can be our vote, our voice. You can make a change for us,” Hector told me. He finds it frustrating when people who are citizens tell him they don’t plan on voting. “If you’re a citizen, you don’t wake up every morning thinking you’re a citizen,” he said. Hector, who was born in Tijuana, Mexico, immigrated to the United States with his family when he was eight months old. “Every morning, I wake up knowing who I am, a DACA recipient.”

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Hector and Oscar recognize the stakes in the election—both were jolted when, last September, Attorney Jeff Sessions announced the Trump administration would be ending the DACA program. (DACA is still alive, if on life support. After several states sued the Trump administration, federal judges have for the time being ordered the administration to keep the program going.) “I just see all these things they keep doing to us, when we’re just trying to live our lives,” Hector said. He’s worried about his parents, too, who unlike him have no protections at all. “It’s easy to see our rights taken away, but I’m not gonna let that happen.”

During the past two months, Hector, who is a sophomore studying computer science and physics at the University of Houston, has spent almost every free moment canvassing and phone banking to get out the vote. Most weekdays, after his classes end at 2 p.m., he transitions straight to knocking on doors; on the weekends, he spends the whole day going door to door. He estimates that he’s reached more than 1,000 voters since he began. For Oscar, the weekend’s canvassing shift was his first time ever talking part in any kind of political event, let alone canvassing. Oscar had only heard of United We Dream three weeks earlier, when he was at a college fair and met a member of the organization. He signed up on the spot. On Friday, a staffer texted him with info about the next day’s canvassing efforts, and the next morning, there he was, in his Metallica t-shirt and tidy black Vans, his hair styled in a gravity-defying wedge. “My parents came because they were threatened, and they wanted a better future for me,” Oscar, a senior in high school, said. His family had fled gang violence in El Salvador when he was six years old. “We’ve gone through a lot, and [Trump’s] trying to say, ‘Screw that, go back to your place,’ when we’re just trying to get an education.”

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On Saturday, as they continued making their way through their list of 78 names, Hector was struck by the lack of Beto lawn signs in the neighborhood. “It’s weird, they’re usually everywhere,” he said. At one house they went to, the woman who answered the door asked them in Spanish if they had any lawn signs; she wanted one. “That means the Beto people haven’t really been out here,” Hector suspected.

If Beto O’Rourke wins on Tuesday in his race against Ted Cruz (Cook Political Report currently rates it as a “toss up”), it will be partly due to the collective efforts of groups like United We Dream and people like Hector and Oscar, who are part of a wave of grassroots groups that have this year embraced electoral politics at an unprecedented scale. According to the organization’s field communications manager Sheridan Aguirre, United We Dream and United We Dream Action (the organization’s sister group, which is coordinating its get out the vote efforts for Beto O’Rourke) have so far mobilized more than 630,000 people to vote this year in several states around the country, including Texas. Their focus has been Latinx, low-propensity voters—those who might vote during presidential years, but skip midterm elections, and a group that some have charged O’Rourke’s campaign with neglecting during his run. (According to a Quinnipiac poll from mid-September, 45 percent of Latinx voters in Texas planned to support Cruz; 54 percent said they would vote for O’Rourke.) “It is a pretty well-known fact that our communities, communities of color, are not reached by the Democratic Party,” Aguirre said. “For us, it was important to have people looking like us, knocking on doors and making phone calls.”

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Julieta Garibay, the Texas director of both United We Dream and United We Dream Action, said that their get out the vote efforts this year, led by immigrant and undocumented youth, represent a new phase of their work. This year, United We Dream Action had, for the first time, endorsed two candidates—O’Rourke and Lina Hidalgo, who was running for Harris County Judge. “We have the power to take over the streets, and we’ve done it in a beautiful way, and now we want to use our power to ensure that people are voting,” Garibay told me that morning, as the teams of canvassers were being trained. (“Don’t touch dogs, or cats, or rabbits,” one person warned them. “Make sure the houses don’t have Ted Cruz signs in the porch, because those are poisonous,” another joked, to laughs.)

Three hours and three miles later, Hector and Oscar tallied up their work for the day. Together, they had knocked on 33 doors, and talked to eight people, most of whom had either already voted or planned on voting for O’Rourke on Tuesday.

Compared to the previous day, when Hector had only spoken with one voter during his canvassing shift, he was pleased. “That was a good one,” he said. Oscar was off to his job as a cook at a Cajun restaurant; Hector, meanwhile, had another shift and another three hours to go.