Charles Ommanney/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Rising immigrant population looks to influence New Hampshire primary

State’s shifting demographics mean foreign-born voters could have more say in presidential election

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Eva Castillo and her colleagues wait eagerly for presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., to arrive for his speech at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.

The lobby is packed with supporters waiting for a handshake or even a signature. Suddenly, the doors swing open, and Rubio enters, followed by a scrum of news cameras and microphones.

As Rubio makes his way down the rope line, Castillo gets ready. When he finally reaches she, she swings into action. “Senator, you’re criticized now by Sen. [Ted] Cruz on immigration. He used to support immigration reform, but without a path [to citizenship],” she tells Rubio, as a partner records the exchange. “What are the differences between you and Sen. Cruz?”

“I don’t know anymore because he keeps changing his position on it,” Rubio responds.

“What’s your position?” she demands.

“My position is we’re going to enforce the law first, then we’ll see what the American people will support,” he says.

Rubio quickly moves to the next person in line, a Cuban immigrant who also asks him about immigration. When he repeats his line about enforcing current laws, Castillo can’t help interjecting. “Pero hay que pasar una reforma migratoria para todos” (But you have to pass immigration reform for all), she says. 

Castillo moved to New Hampshire in 1982 from her native Venezuela. Now she’s the New Hampshire organizer for the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. The job has made her practiced in chasing down presidential candidates and getting them to go on the record on their immigration positions. “Bird-dogging is an art,” she says, exuberant, after the testy exchange with Rubio.

This is Castillo’s third time pestering Rubio, with similar results. “It’s the same, standard ‘We need to enforce the law.’ OK, and? He doesn’t say anything, of course,” she says. “But [we] got it [on video]. That’s what matters.”

New Hampshire’s immigrant population, at just 5.5 percent, is less than half the national average, according to the most recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau. But across the Granite State, a growing foreign-born population is making its voice heard and trying to hold candidates accountable on issues like immigration reform and foreign policy.

“Before, yes, it was a white state,” Mary Georges, from the Democratic Republic of Congo, says as she stands in the sanctuary of Raymond Baptist Church in Raymond after a panel on immigration reform. “But today it’s not really just a white state. We’ve become a diverse state. Manchester is a big city. It can change the politics because now there are a lot of immigrants.”

Georges, 58, is part of that change. She has lived in the U.S. for 25 years — 23 of them in Manchester. In November she became the first African immigrant elected to a municipal office in New Hampshire, when voters elected her to Manchester’s school board. She pushes other African immigrants in Manchester to pay attention to local and national politics, she says.

At 13.2 percent, Manchester’s immigrant population is more than twice the state average, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. The concentration of immigrants and campaign events has made the Queen City a center for immigrant activism — especially pushing candidates to clarify their positions on immigration reform and foreign policy.

“This year I didn’t do it … the bird-dog, but before, I’ve gone to do the bird-dog. I like in New Hampshire, I like in Manchester, because I can talk to any [presidential candidate],” Georges says.

The national conversation about immigration reform has focused on undocumented Latino immigrants crossing over the U.S.-Mexico border. But the issue is just as important to immigrants from elsewhere around the world, according to Georges — a sentiment echoed by other immigrants in New Hampshire who spoke with Al Jazeera.

“We are here too — African, Asian, all of those, like the Bhutanese,” Georges says. “Everybody come to here.”

Paulette Duclair, 51 of Raymond was also at the panel on immigration reform in Raymond. She immigrated to the U.S. from Haiti 36 years ago. Now a U.S. citizen, she helps other Haitians in the area learn about the candidates and their positions. Like Georges, Duclair emphasizes the importance of immigration reform to her community. Those kinds of issues trump party loyalty for Haitian immigrants, she says.

“Whoever’s as close with our cause, that’s who we vote for,” she says. “We’re not Democrats. We’re not Republicans. We’re not independents. We’re behind the cause.”

‘Today, [New Hampshire is] not really just a white state. We’ve become a diverse state. Manchester is a big city. It can change the politics, because now there are a lot of immigrants.’

Mary Georges

immigrant in New Hampshire

The immigration reform panel included local activists, clergy and businesspeople from across the political spectrum. It was sponsored by Granite Staters for Common Sense Immigration Reform and Bibles, Business and Badges for Immigration Reform. Many of the panelists focused on the benefits that immigration reform — especially changes to the H-1B visa program — would have on New Hampshire’s growing technology sector.

That focus on the economy may be paying off. At a campaign stop in New Hampshire last year, Republican presidential candidate Chris Christie, the governor of New Jersey, said he gets questions about immigration at every event, according to Scott Spradling, a volunteer for Granite Staters. For Spradling, that means the group is having an impact.

“To me, that’s the finish line — having it be prioritized, having people really scrutinize it,” he says. “I think that makes a difference.”

All three Republican front-runners — Sen. Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Sen. Marco Rubio — are the children of immigrants. Cruz was born in Canada to an American mother, Eleanor Darragh, and a Cuban immigrant father, Rafael Cruz. Trump’s mother, Mary Anne MacLeod, immigrated to the U.S. from Scotland after meeting his father, Fred Trump. And both of Rubio’s parents, Mario Rubio and Oriales Garcia, immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba before Fidel Castro’s 1959 takeover.

All three have put forward immigration platforms that focus on securing the U.S.-Mexico border, stopping undocumented immigration and enforcing current immigration laws. Controversial remarks by Trump have dominated the headlines. He accused undocumented Mexican immigrants of being rapists and drug dealers, promised to end birthright citizenship if elected, called for temporarily barring Muslims who are not U.S. citizens from entering the country and said he would get Mexico to pay for a wall along the United States’ southern border.

His rhetoric on immigration has done little to hurt his campaign. Cruz won Monday’s caucuses in Iowa, and Rubio’s poll numbers improved last week in New Hampshire. But Trump’s events regularly draw thousands of people across New Hampshire. He has a solid 17-point lead in New Hampshire and an 8-point lead nationally, according to Real Clear Politics’ averages of recent polls.

That worries Ferguson Cullen, a former New Hampshire GOP chairman who has endorsed Gov. John Kasich for the party’s nomination. Mitt Romney’s use of immigration as a wedge issue during the 2008 and 2012 Republican primaries isolated many voters, according to Cullen. The party was beginning to rebound, he says, before Trump hijacked the discussion.

There are lessons learned from Romney’s experience, says Cullen. “If we want to win elections, we have to attract people and not repel them,” he says. “That was all doing OK until Donald Trump came in and accused every Mexican of being a criminal and a rapist. That was not constructive for the country.”

Happy in New Hampshire

Not every issue that’s important to immigrant communities in New Hampshire is making front-page headlines. Under the watchful gaze of a traditional Buddha painting in his living room, Suraj Budathoki, the executive director of the International Campaign for Human Rights in Bhutan, speaks passionately about his efforts to raise Bhutanese issues with presidential candidates.

“Now we are here in the United States, the most powerful country,” he says, as his daughter Brianna, 4, plays with toys on a coffee table. “If it is a guardian of human rights and democracy, why is it not in Bhutan?”

His family, from the Lhotshampa ethnic minority, fled Bhutan, a small Buddhist kingdom in the Himalayas, when he was 9 years old. At least 100,000 other Lhotshampa fled the country at the time, after the government claimed they were illegal immigrants and stripped them of citizenship. After 20 years in a refugee camp in Nepal, Budathoki immigrated to the U.S. and settled in Manchester.

More than 2,100 Bhutanese refugees have settled in New Hampshire since 2002, with 977 of those making Manchester home, according to data from the U.S. State Department. About 600 members of New Hampshire’s Bhutanese community will be eligible to vote in November, Budathoki says, including him. He will vote in his first presidential primary on Tuesday.

The Bhutanese community is active in other ways as well. Last year it got the New Hampshire legislature to pass a resolution that recognizes the contributions that Bhutanese refugees make to the state and calls on the U.S. government to advocate for human rights in Bhutan. He has lobbied Republican and Democratic candidates to take a position on the issue.

It’s a niche topic, and Budathoki says he hasn’t had much luck getting the candidates to respond. But he plans to keep trying through the primary, and he’s grateful to live in a state where he has the opportunity to meet candidates directly.

“If I were in [Georgia] or some other state, I wouldn’t get these opportunities,” he says. “So I’m very happy to be in New Hampshire. I’m very thankful.”

Related News

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter