As temperatures across the South are starting to rise, primary election season is also heating up. Though Democrats’ prospects in Southern states have long been dismal — since at least the spring of 1963 — if party leaders took notice of Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) immigrants’ untapped voting power, this could easily change.
Every year, on a chilly, early November morning, my baba (“father”) wakes up at dawn to walk to our nearest polling location in McLean, Virginia. Every year, he proudly returns with his “I voted” sticker in hand and a story of gratitude to share. Voting is not only a duty he proudly performs but also a reminder of his commitment to the second country he calls home and the Democratic Party to which he belongs.
Though some analysts and commentators have asserted that it’s time to “dump Dixie” and focus electoral efforts elsewhere, as a student of history, co-founder of a civic education platform, a native Virginian, and the daughter of a Moroccan immigrant, I’m convinced that incorporating MENA immigrants into the Democratic political fold and Southern electorate would turn the tide.
Having conducted countless interviews with Moroccan immigrants from Virginia to better understand their views on the Southern cultural and political landscape, I strongly believe that the South is not beyond Democratic reach. MENA immigrants could potentially flip certain communities in the South toward Democratic leadership — if Democrats invest financially and politically in them.
Because the majority identify as Democrats and their populations are growing, MENA immigrant enclaves in the South are a critical population in which to invest. Currently, such immigrant enclaves are not receiving much love from the Democratic Party, and this lack of attention from the political left has resulted in these communities feeling alienated from both the specific political party and the larger Southern community. When underrepresented communities are recognized, however, and their financial and social interests are heard, such groups will (and have) come out in droves for the Democratic Party.
The long-standing Democratic dream to flip the South can come to fruition by the 2022 midterm cycle if Democratic operatives devote their time and energy to earning the trust and support of MENA immigrant enclaves. These communities’ political strength lies in increasing rates of immigration and demographic alterations.
One can look to the Commonwealth of Virginia as a road map. Once a reliably red state, Virginia is now controlled by a Democratic governor, lieutenant governor, two senators, and attorney general. What has accounted for that change? Immigrants in suburban Virginian neighborhoods. Democrats have gained control of the state by investing in suburban regions around metropolitan areas, as evidenced most clearly in northern Virginia. The state’s eastern cities, with closer proximity to Washington, D.C., are abundant with immigrant populations, specifically MENA immigrants, and have voted for Democrats in increasing numbers over the past 20 years.
The state has followed national trends of immigration over the past 30 years and is among the states with the fastest-growing Middle Eastern and North African immigrant populations. Nationally, most MENA immigrants are Democrats, with almost 60% of Arab Americans preferring Joe Biden to Donald Trump in the 2020 election. While demographics indicate that the state, and the greater South, will only accumulate more immigrants over the next decade, some assume this will tilt the political balance further left. But investment in those communities is the key to flipping the region. Democratic leaders can’t just assume that immigrants will always vote blue in the years to come. They must ensure that these communities feel welcomed into the party well before Election Day.
In interviews with Moroccan immigrants residing in the Commonwealth, many stated that they felt alienated from the regional Democratic Party and the state itself. One immigrant remarked that he “entered true Virginia” when he traveled 15 minutes from his home to the town of Manassas. In clarifying his reference, he designated “white, primarily conservative, and older” individuals to encompass the authentic Commonwealth identity. Other immigrants echoed the same sentiment, indicating that non-white immigrant communities do not feel included within a homogeneous Southern culture.
Moroccan immigrants’ concerns regarding authentic Southern culture were reinforced in 2008 by John McCain’s campaign spokeswoman, Nancy Pfotenhauer. “The Democrats have just come in from the District of Columbia and moved into northern Virginia, and that’s really what you see there,” she stated. “But the rest of the state — real Virginia, if you will — I think will be very responsive to Senator McCain’s message.” The designation of “true” or “real” Virginia as a conservative beacon for white voters hits home for many MENA immigrants. From living in the Commonwealth my whole life, I can say with certainty that this messaging is alienating a key Southern electoral bloc.
The lessons we can learn from Virginia are applicable to the rest of the South. Investing in underrepresented Southern communities has resulted in huge victories for Democrats in the past. Just look at Georgia’s recent Democratic victory. For the first time since 2003, Georgia is represented by two Democratic senators, which ultimately resulted in Democratic control of the Senate. To be clear, what happened in Georgia is unique and will not occur in every other state that encompasses the South. Every minority population and person has their own political needs and desires. However, this historic win — due largely to grassroots organizing efforts and support from the Black community — is a testament to what Democratic economic and social investment can do.
The growing presence of larger immigrant enclaves in Virginia and the greater American South increasingly challenge long-established ethnic and political hierarchies, chiseling at the walls of conceived “Southernness.” The Virginia and South that I know and love can be gained by the Democratic Party if leaders invest early to ensure that immigrant populations, and specifically Middle Eastern and North African immigrants, not only feel included within the party on voting day but also are welcomed into the broader Southern region.
Sophia Houdaigui ’21 is a graduate of Barnard College, where she majored in history, as well as the co-founder of Hyphenated America, a civic education platform that aims to help young people gain a better understanding of the U.S.’s complex immigration system.