Can Refugees Help Bernie Reboot His Campaign? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Can Refugees Help Bernie Reboot His Campaign?

Hema Gurung walks her son and nephew home from daycare in Burlington, Vermont. The Gurung family moved to the area with the help of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, which has resettled over 1,700 other Nepali-Bhutanese refugees in the state since 2008.
SourceRobert Nickelsberg/Getty

Can Refugees Help Bernie Reboot His Campaign?

By Nick Fouriezos


Because the upcoming primary states represent some of America's largest strongholds for newer American voters.

By Nick Fouriezos

The “Bernie Bro” meme is shorthand for the type of supporter Bernie Sanders ostensibly attracts, typified by a few of his most outspoken online backers. But it isn’t angry white men who have propelled Sanders’ journey to becoming one of the two leading contenders for the Democratic nomination. Broadly, it’s been — particularly Latino — voters of color and young women just as often as men.

Now, another often-ignored voting community — refugees — could prove a vital element of his organization’s strategy as his campaign reboots after a disastrous Super Tuesday when Sanders lost the Democratic front-runner status to former Vice President Joe Biden. The Sanders campaign has already gained from support from Sudanese and Ethiopian immigrants in Iowa, and Nepalese and Bhutanese transplants in New Hampshire.

Michigan and Washington, the two biggest delegate prizes up for grabs on Tuesday, have accepted the 4th and 8th largest number of refugees in the past decade, according to data from the Refugee Processing Center analyzed by OZY. Arizona, Florida, Ohio and Illinois, which vote a week later, host the 5th, 7th, 10th and 12th largest refugee populations to have made America their home since 2009. And Georgia, on March 24, ranks 6th in this list.

Every campaign other than Bernie probably gets a C-minus on this effort.

Moe Vela, former senior adviser to Joe Biden

That makes the upcoming March primary slate ideal for Sanders to highlight his ability to rally refugees to his cause, as he tries to revive his campaign. He starts with a clear edge.

“Every campaign other than Bernie probably gets a C-minus on this effort,” says Moe Vela, a former senior adviser to Biden. “Refugees, ethnic minorities, all do pretty well across the board for Bernie. And the other campaigns have been dismal. In many cases, abysmal.”

For Sanders, Michigan is critical. He beat Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race here four years ago but is trailing Biden by 12 percentage points, according to the latest OZY/0ptimus forecast. One set of voters Biden isn’t targeting, though, are the 31,586 refugees who’ve made the state their home since 2009.

In mid-February, Sanders’ campaign announced offices in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Ann Arbor, Flint … and Dearborn, a Muslim-majority suburb of Detroit where the opening was headlined by Palestinian-American comedian and activist Amer Zahr. Sanders added a last-minute rally in Dearborn on Saturday. Iowa field director Michael Fassulo has been brought on as Michigan state director, and one of Sanders’ biggest endorsements has come from Abdul El-Sayed, a former governor candidate and the son of Egyptian immigrants.


Susmik Lama delivered a pitch for Bernie Sanders in her native tongue to Bhutanese refugees from Nepal.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Overall, more than 620,000 refugees have come to the U.S. since 2009. And being able to harness those who are eligible to vote within those communities could also be crucial in the November general election against President Donald Trump.

“The smart strategy is you find little niches that nobody else is reaching out to,” says Mark Rom, a public policy professor at Georgetown University. It won’t make much of a difference in many states. But where the presidential race is close, like Florida, “200 voters here, 500 voters here, that could make a huge difference,” he says.

Sanders found those little niches better than any other candidate in the early states.

In Iowa, his first win was a satellite caucus in Ottumwa, where 14 of 15 attendees voted for the Vermont senator: About half of them were Ethiopian immigrants who worked the overnight shift at a pork processing plant. In Iowa City, 10 Sudanese supporters all living in the same apartment complex became evangelists, organizing two busloads of Sudanese Americans to a satellite caucus for foreign language speakers that awarded Sanders all nine of its delegates. Sanders swept satellite caucuses at the Des Moines’ Bosnian Islamic Center Zen Zen, filled with Bhutanese Nepali caucus-goers; at the Karen Baptist Church, home to many refugees from Myanmar; and the Grandview University Student Center, where Hmong, Filipino, Vietnamese and Cambodian voters caucused.

In New Hampshire, the Sanders campaign drew endorsements from representatives of Bhutanese, Rohingya and Congolese communities. “I had never seen something like that for a presidential campaign,” says Susmik Lama, a Sanders field organizer who delivered a pitch for him to Bhutanese refugees from Nepal in her native tongue. “It was a huge thing for people in my community.”

There’s no guarantee this strategy will work. On Super Tuesday, Sanders lost Minnesota and Maine, liberal states with large Somali populations, and Texas, which has accepted the largest number of refugees since 2009.

In Texas, Sanders confronted the significant TV spending by Mike Bloomberg. “A lot of the people have seen the ads,” says Oscar James, a 37-year-old who immigrated to Houston from Lagos, Nigeria, last year, and was canvassing for Bloomberg. The ads — and Bloomberg’s unmatched 19 campaign offices across the state — shared the billionaire’s message with refugees before the Sanders team could reach them.


Susmik Lama works from the Bernie Sanders field office outside of the SNHU Arena in New Hampshire, days before Sanders won the state’s primary.

Source Nick Fouriezos/OZY

Meanwhile, Sanders’ struggles in other states on March 3 exemplify the challenge candidates face when wooing refugee communities — that many do not vote in lockstep. While the Somali community in Minnesota has increased its influence, it “is not monolithic,” says Betsy Hodges, the former Minneapolis mayor who endorsed Pete Buttigieg when the ex-mayor of South Bend was still in the race. “There are divisions and factions, and being able to navigate those well is important for any candidate.”

But now the Democratic race has effectively narrowed to two candidates, with Bloomberg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren dropping out after Super Tuesday. And whose message best serves the interests of refugees, between Biden and Sanders, depends on whom you ask. “Most of the time, refugees ask, ‘Do I even deserve health care, do I even deserve free education?'” Lama says, and for her (and Sanders) the answer is yes. Vela, the former Biden adviser, argues such promises are illusory at best, malicious at worst. “It really, really offends me that he has, in many ways, preyed on refugee and minority communities,” Vela says. “He can’t deliver on 1/100th of his promises. And he knows that.”

Either way, organizing refugee communities now will have ramifications for civic participation in the future. “The goal,” Lama says, “is to make sure … we don’t have to go out there and tell them again, but that in the next primary, they’ll come on their own.”

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