By Devin Browne
Fronteras News Desk
PHOENIX — Last month, Time Magazine featured a 27-year-old undocumented immigrant activist from Phoenix in its list of the world’s 100 most influential people. The activist, Dulce Matuz, an advocate for undocumented migrant youth looking for a pathway to citizenship, was featured alongside Marco Rubio, the Middleton sisters, and other moguls Time says, “challenge us and change our world.”
The magazine’s decision highlights a certain irony common among young immigrant activists in Arizona: They’re politically connected — and effective — enough to appear in Time, to call congressmen on their personal cellphones, to post profile pictures on Facebook with President Obama one week, Hillary Clinton the next. Yet they cannot participate in the most basic of political activities: They can’t vote because they’re not citizens.
This doesn’t stop them from influencing the voters who can.
One group, self-identified as Team Awesome, proved this in an especially dramatic way last fall when they helped increase the Latino voter-turnout in one area in Phoenix by 480 percent — and, in doing so, helped elect the first Latino to represent an overwhelmingly Latino district on the Phoenix City Council.
“We call it voter contact,” said Team Awesome core member Tony Valdovinos. “Give them a call, knock on their door, give them a mail piece.” He goes on, “We got to the point where people were annoyed, because they [would be] like, ‘Oh my God, stop calling. I get it.’”
There’s nothing particularly remarkable about the strategy as Valdovinos outlines it — knocking on doors and talking to voters is the cornerstone of any political campaign. But by doing these things, and by doing them a lot (they knocked on 72,000 doors in the district), they did in fact end up achieving something remarkable: They changed voter behavior, getting most residents in a neighborhood with a historically low voter turnout record out of their houses, and into the voting booths.
“People were so disenfranchised from the process that they didn’t care,” Valdovinos said. “But one of the pushes we gave was: You not caring about them is them not caring about you.”
The campaigners also built a brand for themselves. Team Awesome was also featured in Time and later, Daniel Valenzuela’s own District Five YouTube show (DTV).
“Viri, I want to start with you,” the councilman asked Valdovinos’ teammate, Viri Hernandez in episode one. “What is Team Awesome?”
“Well,” Hernandez began. “Team Awesome is a group of students that came together about a year ago, students from different colleges, different high schools…”
Specifically, many of Team Awesome’s core members, including Hernandez and Valdovinos, are so-called DREAM Act students, named for the failed legislation they support which provides undocumented students like them with a pathway to citizenship.
If, that is, they’re still even students — Valdovinos isn’t in school anymore because he says he was priced out of college by a tuition hike aimed at getting undocumented students out of state-funded institutions.
That so many of the original Team Awesome members are undocumented is important to note for two reasons. One, it helps explain their incredible success. The problem so many political campaigns have isn’t that they don’t know voter contact is important — it’s that they struggle to recruit and retain volunteers who are dedicated enough to the candidate to put in the time required that voters are eventually saying what they said to Valdovinos: “Oh my God, stop calling. I get it.”
Team Awesome members want to oust Sheriff Joe Arpaio from office. Many analysts predict this will be a more difficult race for the team than its first major campaign last fall in Phoenix’s District 5. Photo courtesy of Tony Valdovinos. (Editor’s Note: Personal information has been obscured in this photo.)
The undocumented activists who started Team Awesome have a lot at stake…