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How grass-roots efforts by Georgia’s Latinos helped tip the Senate races

Selena Herrera canvasses her hometown of Tifton, Ga., as part of her work with the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights. (Selena Herrera)
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Selena Herrera’s political awakening began last summer when, horrified by the police killing of George Floyd, she organized a protest for racial justice in Tifton, Ga.

“It was a big thing for a lot of people to know that even here in the Deep South that we hear everyone and they know that they have somebody there that can support them,” Herrera said, adding that the need to be seen and heard was especially important for the Black and Latino communities in her rural hometown of 16,000, about 180 miles south of Atlanta.

Herrera, 22, became more attuned to injustices around her and wanted to fight for the rights of LGBTQ individuals and undocumented immigrants, some of whom are in her own family. She started knocking on doors as a paid community organizer to get out the vote during last year’s general election season as part of a grass-roots effort by the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR), a nonprofit that supports immigrant rights.

Herrera, who had never voted before the 2020 election, said she felt especially motivated to get involved after Georgia’s Senate races headed to a runoff. If Raphael G. Warnock and Jon Ossoff won their respective elections against Republican incumbents Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, Democrats would control the Senate and support President Biden’s pledge to enact comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.

“My reaction was just like, ‘We’ve got to get on it, we’ve got to move,’ ” said Herrera, who said she led a team of 21 young Latino and Black canvassers during the runoffs. “I felt like it gave us a chance to do what we had to do for change.”

Although Hispanics like Herrera make up a small share of voters in the state — about 5 percent — exit polling from the Jan. 5 Senate runoff found that nearly two-thirds of Latino voters supported each Democratic candidate, up from the 52 percent who supported Ossoff and the 31 percent who supported Warnock in November’s election. Warnock, who was running in a special election, received the highest percentage of votes from Latinos overall in a field of 20 candidates. In the tight general election, President Biden won Georgia by 12,000 votes.

“No doubt the Latino vote could have made the difference, potentially the difference between winning and losing,” said Adelina Nicholls, the executive director for GLAHR, which partnered with Mijente, a national organization that advocates for Latinos.

The number of eligible Hispanic voters in the Atlanta metro area is expanding. There were 60 percent more Hispanic registered voters in 2020 compared with 2016, up from 106,000 to 170,000, according to the Pew Research Center.

Organizers are tapping into demographic changes that are transforming the state. The median age of Latinos in Georgia is 27, according to census data, with many of them born in the United States to parents who are undocumented.

While foreign-born Latinos first immigrated to the Atlanta metro in the 1980s in search of work in construction and other industries, most of the new growth in the Latino population in the city in the past 15 years has been driven by U.S.-born Latinos, according to a report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. Atlanta projects its Latino population will grow from about 12 percent in 2015 to 21 percent by 2050.

GLAHR canvassed more than 300,000 doors in the time between the general election and the Senate runoff. Nicholls said that while most of their efforts were concentrated in the Atlanta metro area, where much of the state’s Latinos live, they also reached out to other parts of the state.

“We began to mobilize our roots in south, southeast and as well southwest of Georgia to outreach to rural communities where there are many Latino citizens that have never been in contact with someone asking them to get out to vote,” Nicholls said.

Record Asian American turnout helped Biden win Georgia

Although GLAHR has been advocating for immigrants for nearly 20 years, the organization became active in the electoral process only in 2018, Nicholls said, as it looked to strengthen the culture of voting among immigrant communities.

“I think that the work that we have been doing for a long time is paying off,” Nicholls said.

GLAHR helped elect Keybo Taylor as the first Black sheriff of Gwinnett County in November. In one of his first acts as sheriff, Taylor fulfilled his campaign promise to eliminate the 287(g) immigration program, which allowed the county jail to collaborate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The organization also tapped into a population that may seem counterintuitive: ineligible voters.

Undocumented immigrant parents can urge their children to vote, and their children, born in the United States and constitutionally granted citizenship from birth, can then do so with their family’s interests in mind, Nicholls said.

Nationally, more than 8 million U.S. citizens live with at least one family member who is undocumented, according to a 2017 report from the Center for American Progress. In Georgia, 503,155 U.S. citizens live with at least one undocumented family member, the report found.

“So many of these kids all these years have been witnesses to ICE outside of their door, or they have been witnesses of the arrest of their parents, or they have been stopped by the police several times,” Nicholls said. And that “has had deep repercussions in our communities, very, very, very deep.”

Voto Latino, a national organization that focuses on voter registration, tapped into the 18- to 39-year-old demographic and partnered with Stacey Abrams’s Fair Fight Action initiative. Ahead of the general election, Voto Latino registered 36,000 voters over the course of the year, said María Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino’s founding president. They registered 11,528 more between Nov. 30 and Dec. 7 for the Senate runoffs.

“You are seeing a shift in young people of color aging into the population, and engaging them in the process early is critical,” Kumar said. “You can say that that was the reason why Arizona flipped this year as well. … That was why Virginia flipped four years ago, that was why Nevada flipped, and Georgia is part of that trend.”

In Georgia, get-out-the-vote operations that helped Biden win haven’t stopped

“When we started Voto Latino [in 2014], 30,000 Latinos were turning 18 every single year. A Latino turns 18 every 30 seconds now, and that will be the case for the next 10 years,” Kumar said.

Herrera, from Tifton, says that she is hopeful young voters of color like herself will stay engaged and become more influential in upcoming elections.

“Now we know why it’s so important, and we’ll have a big impact on future elections,” Herrera said. “Black and Brown solidarity is huge, and I think our young generation knows that.”