01/30/2020 05:45 EST | Updated 01/31/2020 12:10 EST

Non-Citizens Mobilize For Iowa Caucuses, Even Though They Can't Vote

They're making sure communities of color have a voice by organizing caucus trainings and setting up dedicated Spanish-language voting locations.

DES MOINES, Iowa ― On a Saturday night in January, several dozen men stepped out into the single-digit cold and ventured to East High School for a soccer tournament. 

But before they began playing, campaign staffers for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) taught them how to participate in the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3. 

Luis Gomez, 31, is the Sanders die-hard who organized the event. He was never involved in politics until he learned about the Vermont senator, and now he has campaign merch displayed at his auto body repair shop.

“I’m always wearing my pin,” he said. “So, people ask me ― usually we’re fixing their car brakes and they’re tired and they have to wait for a little bit, so I get a chance to say, ‘Hey, you know ― what do you do? How’s your health care?’ You know, just everyday things. People are interested, and then that starts a conversation and we go from there.” 

Luis Gomez
Luis Gomez promotes the candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) at his auto body repair shop in Des Moines.

Gomez is a resident, not a citizen, so he won’t be able to caucus. But he’s still been doing everything he can for Sanders, short of that. 

“The one time when I get all my friends together is when we play soccer,” said Gomez, who also coaches at the high school. He figured organizing a tournament was a good way to entice people to come out and learn about the caucuses, and the Sanders campaign agreed, signing on as a sponsor of the event. 

The soccer players and their friends who turned up that night were a mix of people from the local Latino, Bosnian, Nepalese and other Asian American Pacific Islander communities. 

Amanda Terkel/HuffPost
Members of communities of color in Des Moines turned up at East High School for a caucus training and soccer tournament sponsored by Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) presidential campaign.

Iowa is often portrayed as a state full of cornfields and white people. Indeed, it is 85% whiteBut it also has communities of color who are fighting to make sure they’re not left out in 2020. The state’s Latino population has doubled in the past two decades, and has an estimated 50,000 registered Latino voters. 

“I know a lot of these farms ― whether it’s hogs or milking cows or working with turkeys or soy, whatever it is ― they are being run and worked by immigrants. So we’re in every little tiny small town in all 90 counties. You’re going to see some Latino faces,” said Monica Reyes, 29, who grew up in a small farming community in the northeastern part of the state.

Reyes came to the United States when she was 3 years old and was a recipient of former President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. She and her sister founded the group Dream Iowa. 

“I feel like a lot of the advocacy and the civic engagement here ― and across the state ― but especially here in the area of Des Moines, is being led by people that actually are not able to vote,” Reyes said. 

She hosts a weekly radio show, and frequently discusses the caucuses, voter registration, and the importance of participating in the political process.

Buena Vista County is one of those places that defies outside expectations. It went for Donald Trump by nearly 35 percentage points in the 2016 presidential election. It’s also in the district of Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), an outspoken supporter of white nationalists.

“I feel like a lot of the advocacy and the civic engagement here ... is being led by people that actually are not able to vote."Monica Reyes, co-founder of Dream Iowa

But within the county is the city of Storm Lake — population: 10,600 — which is dominated by meatpacking facilities kept alive by immigrants and refugees from Asia, Mexico, Central America and Africa. Less than half of the city’s population is non-Hispanic white; 23 languages are spoken at the local high school; and immigrants comprise 90% of elementary school enrollment. 

Before he dropped out of the presidential race, former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro ― who has since endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) ― had been doing strong outreach to the Latino community in Iowa, and Sanders has also been praised for his campaign’s organizing in communities of color. 

“My dream is that people look around on caucus night and there are all these Thai people and Latinos and Muslims and workers and they say, ‘Wow I didn’t even know these people lived in our community,’” Sanders Campaign Manager Faiz Shakir told a reporter for The Intercept

The campaign has roughly 150 Latino staffers, including more than a dozen DREAMers, who were instrumental in drafting the senator’s immigration platform.

Non-citizens are working on behalf of the race’s more moderate candidates, too. Ariana Wyndham, 29, lives in Ohio, but she’ll be in Iowa this week, her second trip to the state this cycle. She’s one of the leaders of a grassroots group called Barnstormers for Pete, composed of activists who travel to the early primary states to help elect former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. 

Wyndham is also a DACA recipient and came to the U.S. when she was 9. She first learned about Buttigieg through a YouTube ad that popped up at 5 a.m. one morning.

“I was like, ‘Who is this guy? This is not real.’ I thought I was dreaming, but after I heard him speak, I was like, this is who we need right now,” Wyndham said. 

“We do need a lot more visibility when it comes to Latinos and Hispanics or just anything in general ― on mental health, health care, immigration,” she added. “There’s just so many things that need attention within our communities, so we want to try and team up, even if it’s remotely, to help each other connect with more people like us.”

Ariana Wyndham
Ariana Wyndham, second from right, is a DACA recipient and one of the leaders of Barnstormers for Pete, a grassroots group of about 1,000 people traveling to the early states to help elect the former mayor.

This is the first presidential election that Vanessa Marcano-Kelly, 34, will be able to vote in. Although she wasn’t a citizen in 2016, she still knocked on doors, made calls and tried to get involved. 

Now she’s a Sanders precinct captain, and she’s pushed the state to be more welcoming toward Spanish speakers. When the Democratic Party asked for applications for satellite locations — so that voters are able to caucus somewhere besides their local precinct — Marcano-Kelly submitted one suggesting Spanish-language sites. The party listened and, of Iowa’s 99 satellite locations, six will be Spanish-speaking, which activists say is important because there are not enough interpreters for all precincts across the state.

Marcano-Kelly will be at the South Suburban YMCA in Des Moines on Feb. 3 for the Spanish satellite caucus there. Reyes will be too. Even though she can’t caucus — and she’s not supporting a specific candidate — Reyes wants to be there to help with the process. 

“Now I can share my story that I’m a citizen, but I can tell other people that there was a moment where I couldn’t vote, but I could get involved,” Marcano-Kelly said. “Everybody that I ever organized with, everybody that I ever heard a story from that was very painful because [they] didn’t have papers or because of whatever ― I know that I carry them with me when I’m voting.”

Daniel Marans contributed reporting.