Twenty-one-year-old Yamilex Rustrian cannot vote, but she would like to one day. So the Dreamer is doing all she can to make sure Hillary Clinton becomes president.
Last weekend, doing all she can meant climbing into a van with her mother, a janitor who is undocumented, and a dozen other Service Employees International Union members and their children at 3 a.m. for a quick trip to knock on doors in Las Vegas.
Rustrian was 7 when she and her younger sister came to live in the U.S. with their mother, who was already living here illegally. Her mother paid a smuggler to collect her daughters after their father was shot and killed by gang members in Guatemala shortly before Father’s Day. She thought they’d be safer here.
Rustrian, now a Los Angeles Valley College student, received a work permit through Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals because she was brought to the country as a child by her parents. The work permit gives her legal status, not the citizenship she would need to be able to vote, and her mother could still be deported.
Early Saturday morning, Rustrian sat with the group of janitors assembled at long tables in the old mortuary that is home to the SEIU United Service Workers West. They ate ham, cheese and bean sandwiches as they waited for the final workers to get off the late shift. At least one came still dressed in her blue smock.
Rustrian and her mother loaded into the last of the seven vans and buses that brought more than 150 people — SEIU members and their families — from Southern California to knock on 25,000 doors in Las Vegas suburbs for the weekend. The janitors and their children hunkered down for the 4 1/2-hour ride. Several had done this for the union in 2008, 2012 and during the 2016 primaries.
The union, which promised to deploy hundreds of thousands of volunteers when it endorsed Clinton a year ago, is at the forefront of the push to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, preserve the Affordable Care Act and overhaul the nation’s immigration system.
Union members from safely Democratic states like California and New York poured into battleground states like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Virginia in search of undecided voters or committed Democrats to nudge toward the polls. Many brought their wives, husbands and children.
The presidential contest in Nevada is competitive, with Southern California workers planning to make the trip to Nevada again this weekend, and perhaps once more before the election, in hopes they can sway the U.S. Senate race for Democrat Catherine Cortez Masto and shore up the state for Clinton.
Most in the van were asleep as dawn broke, Joshua trees dotting the hills barely visible through the early light. A worker tossed in her sleep and the smell of cleaning solution wafted through the van. When they reached the Las Vegas Strip there was no time for sleep or a shower — just a quick bite to eat before heading to the local SEIU office. There, they picked up clipboards with lists of addresses, a script that instructed them what to say when someone answered a door, and the all-important polling place information.
As she headed out with her instructions, Los Angeles resident and janitor Dora Diaz said she felt especially motivated to go wherever she was needed to help turn out the vote after hearing a 2005 tape of Trump talking about grabbing women without their permission.
Diaz and several other SEIU women who have been raped or assaulted at work fasted outside the Capitol in Sacramento last month to urge Gov. Jerry Brown to sign a bill that requires janitors and their supervisors to complete sexual harassment training, and created a tip line so women can report abuse without fear of being fired or deported. Brown signed the bill into law.
“As a survivor, I know the importance. I hear Donald Trump’s comments towards women, and just thinking about the women who have gone through this abuse and seeing that he is running for president… I haven’t been able to sleep,” the 49-year-old Diaz said through a translator.
Claire Voss was cleaning her house when Diaz and SEIU Executive Vice President Rocio Sáenz knocked on her door. She said she was waiting to cast her ballot on election day alongside her daughter, a first-time voter. The 47-year-old casino worker invited Diaz and Sáenz in to talk about Clinton and the election night watch party she has planned, but there were dozens more doors they needed to knock on.
Halfway through the day, the all-female group of janitors returned to the SEIU office. Some of them were shaken; others were frustrated.
They said a man in a house with Trump campaign signs in the yard saw them knocking on a neighbor’s door, and came out to confront Rustrian and the daughters of several janitors. He questioned whether they were allowed to be in the gated community and followed them as they tried to move on. He began filming them and threatened to call police, they said. As a crowd gathered, he confronted them, asked if they spoke English and if they’re in the country legally. They had only knocked on a few doors, but their driver, a local steelworker, insisted they return to the SEIU office.
When Trump called Mexican immigrants rapists last year, it stung, Rustrian said. He’s spoken about using “deportation forces” to remove immigrants and building a border wall, and she’s worried what will happen to immigrants like her mother in the country illegally if he wins. She believes Clinton will work with Republicans and keep her promise to overhaul the country’s immigration system, succeeding in an area Latino families were frustrated to see President Obama fail.
“I’m documented currently, but that doesn’t mean I can stay here; that doesn’t mean that my mom gets to stay here. I want my family to stay here,” Rustrian said.
SEIU and Clinton campaign organizers encouraged them to keep at it.
The janitors stopped at another neighborhood, sticking together this time. Rustrian walked up and down the rows of buildings looking for an address in an apartment complex, stopping residents to ask for directions, looking at names on mailboxes. When she finally found the door, no one was home, so she slid a Clinton flier with precinct information into the door’s seal.
The next address on their list didn’t seem to exist. Rustrian led the women back and forth across a busy street. The group split up, weaving through courtyards, looking for a way past locked gates, until they found it. They ended up just leaving a flier there, too.
The janitors hurried to find the last dozen addresses on their Saturday list, all in a mobile home park. As they spoke to a Clinton supporter, her neighbor drank a beer and watched them warily. He angrily told them they weren’t allowed in the mobile home park, followed them and pulled out his cellphone to record. The janitors waved to him and continued on.
At one home, a man who wasn’t even on their list crossed his heart, said he’d vote for Clinton and used profanity to describe Trump.
After a second day of door-knocking, the janitors clambered back into their van at the SEIU office for the ride home Sunday. They huddled together, sharing piles of blankets and nodding off against window panes and on each other’s shoulders. The teens who stayed awake played Pokemon Go and made suggestions for music to add to the road-trip playlist.
When they pulled back into the SEIU United Service Workers West building after 11 p.m., the janitors stretched, grumbling at the pops and cracks they heard, and hugged goodbye. Diaz wiped the sleep from her eyes.
Then she headed back to work for the late shift.
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