Photo by Jessica Lynk
BY JESSICA LYNK
Senior Kenia Calderon walked into the United States when she was 11 years old.
“There was no way to do it legally, so we had to cross the border,” Calderon said.
Calderon is one of 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, according to a study by Pew Research Center in 2014.
As an undocumented immigrant, Calderon does not have the right to vote this election. But Calderon is using her voice in other ways.
“I became involved in politics when I realized that reporters weren’t asking the right questions,” Calderon said. “When they weren’t asking about immigration to any of the candidates, especially around the caucus season — and that really angered me and upset me because that was one of the issues that affected my family the most and no one was asking those questions.”
Calderon first became involved in politics last September. She got tickets to see presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak to the Des Moines Register.
“They didn’t ask any questions about immigration, so I got up and I asked for myself,” Calderon said. “That was an empowering moment to show that I could do it and to not be afraid, so that is when I just started bird-dogging candidates when they came to our state.”
Calderon grew up in Santa Ana, El Salvador. Her dad was an attorney and her mom was going to school to become a teacher.
“Even though my dad had a profession and a career, things were still pretty bad, both economically and for our safety,” Calderon said.
Gangs in El Salvador kidnapped 13-year-old girls to be sold off as sex slaves. The same gangs also recruited boys as young as 10 to join.
As Calderon approached 13 and her brother approached 10, her family knew they had to leave the country.
They walked for three days and three nights to cross the U.S. border. Soon after, Calderon and her family settled in Iowa because they had family here already.
Calderon was undocumented for seven years, until she received a work permit during her senior year of high school.
“I lived in constant fear and I still do,” Calderon said. “Just because of my parents, they drive without a driver’s license and I didn’t have anything either, so you live in a constant fear of getting pulled over and being sent home. Or just being sent back home because you just had bad luck.”
Even though she has become involved in politics lately, Calderon hated politics growing up.
“They (politicians) kept playing with our emotions as immigrants. They kept saying we are going to pass an immigration reform, but at the end of the day, it wasn’t one of their priorities,” Calderon said. “Now, I really like politics because I know that my presence is needed in order for the voices of Latinos and immigrants overall to be heard. That’s why I like politics because I know that is where the power is to make a change.”
Calderon was the first undocumented immigrant to publicly endorse a candidate this election cycle. She endorsed Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley last October. This lead her to become a public figure, representing the undocumented community.
“I got Latinos to get out and caucus for the first time,” Calderon said. “Regardless of who they were caucusing for, I think that was a huge success to actually see the numbers of Latinos increase.”
The League of United Latin American Citizens estimated that more than 10,000 Latinos caucused this past February. Only around 1,000 caucused in 2012.
Calderon is now putting her efforts to get people to the polls on Nov. 8.
“This is so important to me because it is something I wish I could do,” Calderon said. “There is nothing more. I like politics so much and I wish I could fully be engaged. But I can only engage to a certain extent because of my lack of citizenship.”
Calderon believes voting in this election is crucial, which is why Calderon is trying to get people to the polls.
“What I have to say to them, this election may not affect them if they are white,” Calderon said, “but it will affect people from different identities that live in this country. And if they really don’t like it, they have to think of the ones that will be affected the most. I have heard everything. I have heard, ‘My conscience won’t let me do it. I just can’t vote.’ I wish I could tell them, get over it. Honestly, that statement comes from such a privileged place to say, ‘Oh I just don’t like either of them.’ One of them has to win … There is 11 million undocumented immigrants that I know are doing everything right in this country, that they wish they had the right to vote to make a difference and they can’t.”
Calderon hopes that overall, people will get out to the polls, because she cannot.
“I tell them to get ahead with time,” Calderon said. “Maybe 20 years from now, they will talk to their children and great grandchildren about what happened in 2016 and I hope that they can say that they helped because they voted for that change to happen.”