Why is Arizona trending blue? Ask Latinos and immigrants who live there.

The World
Reyna Montoya is an Arizona resident and the founder of Aliento, an immigrant aid organization.

Reyna Montoya is an Arizona resident and the founder of Aliento, an immigrant aid organization.

Courtesy of Aliento

The state of Arizona has likely “flipped” into the blue column as of Wednesday afternoon, according to many indicators. Fox News was the first to call Arizona for Democratic candidate Joe Biden, followed by the Associated Press. But votes are still being counted, and many news organizations have not yet called the state for either candidate. 

Arizona hasn’t thrown its weight behind a Democratic presidential contender since 1996. If the state has indeed flipped, much of the credit goes to immigrant rights groups who laid the groundwork through years of organizing. 

“It was a big coalition that was very diverse that really made Arizona happen. And I would say that a lot of that energy was ignited by the anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies that we have experienced for the past two decades,” said Reyna Montoya, founder and CEO of Aliento, a Phoenix-based immigrant aid organization led by undocumented immigrant youth.

Montoya spoke to The World’s host Marco Werman about the Arizona race and some of the reasons why Latinos in the state came out in such huge numbers to vote for Democrats in 2020.

Related: Trump, Biden battle for Latino vote in Arizona

Marco Werman: Reyna, this is the first presidential victory for a Democratic candidate in Arizona since 1996. How do you explain it?

Reyna Montoya: If you want to understand Arizona politics, you have to go back to the early 2000s and how we started seeing waves of anti-immigrant legislation — from not having access to in-state tuition for Dreamers, from English-only laws, banning ethnic studies, to having the famous "show me your papers" law. So it's definitely been years where the immigrant community was terrorized and the little children who were terrorized are now growing up. Young people are paying attention, and now that's one of the biggest things that we're seeing as a result.

A lot of us see roots of this flip to the blue column in the battle to oust controversial former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I think a lot of listeners will remember President Trump pardoned him in 2017, despite charges of abusive conditions in Maricopa County jails, accusations of misuse of public resources. Does the organizing strategy start there? Was it before the Arpaio stuff?

Definitely, the fear that former Sheriff Joe Arpaio created within the communities was very palpable. And I think that ignited a lot of people. Now I work with young people who are 18 years old, who are children of undocumented parents, and this was their first presidential election and they decided to come out because they remember that when they were 9, 10 years old, a very coming-of-age event was getting a flip phone just so you can dial your auntie or your uncle in case that your mom or dad couldn't make it.

I remember we had that conversation with my brother and saying, "Hey, if there's an emergency, this is how you dial," because we were so scared about not knowing if going to the grocery store would be the last date that we would see mom and dad.

Why did the outreach to Latino voters appear to work in Arizona, but not elsewhere?

There have been deep years of investment and commitment. I am a Dreamer, I am a DACA recipient myself, and I remember traveling to different immigration conventions and people saying, "Oh, are you from Arizona? Why don't you just leave?" And I think many of us decided to roll up our sleeves and said, "We're not going to leave Arizona. It's our home."

And it takes commitment, it takes time and it takes a lot of dedication. At the end of the day, for Arizonans, it has never been about being blue or red. It's been about how do we make sure we bring power to the communities who have been marginalized — in this case, the Latinx and the immigrant community.

When it comes to immigration policies and whether they work or not, Arizona's right there at the border and has a really powerful perspective on events. Were there moments in the last three years that really caught voters' attention, more than other states perhaps, and made them realize that, perhaps, the Democrats have a solution?

Many people were very outraged when they started seeing the pictures of little children being separated from their families. We now have close to 500 children that were separated, and they don't have mom and dad, and their parents were deported and they don't have justice as little kids. I think another big effort that we have seen is the role of DACA, and DACA recipients and undocumented youth who were too young to apply for the DACA program.

I get to work with a lot of undocumented students that don't have the ability to pay in-state tuition. And we're seeing that was something that Arizonans really care about. They care about education. They care about immigration and, obviously, health care. In the wake of a pandemic and seeing so many lives being taken away due to COVID-19 — and having the Latino community being disproportionately impacted by COVID-19 — were some of the top issues that really ignited the community to want to have change and do something different.

Related: As DACA fix remains elusive, Arizona 'Dreamers' focus on in-state tuition

I was just about to ask whether the pandemic, you think, played a role in how Arizona residents voted?

From all the calls that we had, it was very evident that people were very worried. We at Aliento helped close to 500 families with $500 cash assistance. So we're talking about over $200,000 of investment that we did with the communities because they were so desperate. They were systematically excluded by our federal government so that if you had a loved one — either your husband, your wife, your son — who was undocumented in your taxes, you were excluded from any economic relief from the federal government.

So I think that that created a lot of energy. We also started seeing that in the specific ZIP codes here in Arizona in the very high peak of the pandemic during the summer, there were predominantly precincts and neighborhoods that were heavily populated by the Latino and Latinx community. So for us, definitely we heard those calls and those cries on the phone saying, "We got to do something because our lives depend on it."

Reyna, for you, as an immigrant rights activist, what is the big lesson from what happened in Arizona?

The big lesson is that when there's investment in the community who has been impacted and marginalized for years, you would see results. It takes time, it takes commitment and it takes dedication. And that's what we have seen in Arizona, that it's not about being blue or being red. But at the end of the day, it's about what are the policies that are impacting our neighbors, that are impacting our communities. And when we see pain, when we see hurt, when we see very anti-immigrant rhetoric, it's not going to work. And I think that's the big lesson that the United States can take from us.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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