Latino voters’ course unclear
Dems seek gains after immigration backlash, but GOP is confident
DALLAS — Josie Zamora, 44, born in Mexico and a legal resident of Texas for nearly 15 years, says she can feel the building pressure.
“You can feel it in the community,” she says in describing her Oak Cliff neighborhood, where many of the families are from the same small towns in Mexico.
First was Donald Trump’s border wall, and the push from politicians to deport all immigrants in the country illegally. Then came the passage in Austin of a Texas ban on sanctuary cities and the calls to deport Dreamers, the young immigrants who were brought into the United States illegally by their undocumented parents.
Last week, when President Trump announced he was ending a protective amnesty program for about 200,000 Salvadorans nationwide, Zamora said she just shook her head.
“We’re Trump’s punching bag,” said the office manager at a Dallas bookkeeping firm. “I try to ignore what he and a lot of his Republicans say. It makes me angry.”
As Democrats look to make gains in Congress and mount a challenge to Gov. Greg Abbott this year, they shouldn’t count on a big Latino vote, despite the backlash to hardline policies and rhetoric of Trump and the GOP on immigrants. It’s more complicated than that.
To succeed, they would have to translate that anger into a surge in Latino voter turnout — something Democrats have predicted for years, but has not materialized. Democrats would also need their predictions to come true that more Latino
voters means more votes for them. How likely is that? Zamora and several of her friends laugh.
“You act like all (Latinos) vote and think alike. Wrong,” said one friend, Maryana Gonzales, adding she would probably vote Republican, if she votes in November at all. “The Democrats think we’ll all turn out for them. I’m Catholic. No abortion or gay marriage. I’m not a Democrat.”
It’s an election year in Texas when Latinos are considered a key and Democrats are touting the candidacy of the first Latina running for governor, former Dallas County Sheriff Lupe Valdez. But the Latinos at the restaurant with Zamora mostly said they weren’t interested in the election at all yet.
In fact, only one knew who Valdez was, even though the sheriff is said to live nearby.
“Most (immigrant voters) probably don’t want to rock the boat, so they just don’t vote, even if they’re mad,” Zamora explained. “I’ve heard again and again how (Latinos) are going to turn out and win everything for the Democrats. I don’t see that.” Others disagree. “It’s true that Latinos don’t vote as a bloc, because Republicans have done a better job in the past of courting Latinos in a sincere way,” said Sylvia Manzano of Latino Decisions, a research firm that focuses on Hispanic voters. “But that’s not happening anymore. And it’s not just that they’re ignoring Latinos. They’re doing worse. They’re actively working to repel Latinos.”
Less than 40 percent of Latinos in Texas registered to vote in 2016, the lowest rate compared with white or black voters. In a state with a long history of low voter turnout, even fewer voted: just 28 percent of registered Latino voters cast a ballot in 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. By comparison, 63 percent
Democrats “make a huge mistake by thinking they have a hold on the Hispanic vote” and “still don’t get why Hispanics voted for Trump. They may not like the man, but they respond to some of his ideas.” Alfonso Aguilar, executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles
of white registered voters went to the polls.
While Texas Democratic Party officials and party activists say registrations of Hispanics are up significantly, GOP campaign consultants say their polling shows that many Latinos are likely to vote Republican because they agree with the party’s antiabortion, small-government, pro-business policies — even their stance that immigration laws should be followed.
“Texas Latinos are fired up and fighting back to protect their families. The track record is clear: Texas Republicans have refused to fund neighborhood schools, refused to raise the minimum wage, and refused to protect the Affordable Care Act,” said Manny Garcia, deputy executive director of the Texas Democratic Party. “At the same time they’ve attacked Dreamers, attacked the Voting Rights Act, and passed the ‘show-me-your-papers’ bill, SB4. Donald Trump, Greg Abbott, and Texas Republicans have pulled every trick in the book to attack Latino families and in 2018, they will be held accountable.”
Even in a year when polls show Trump has fallen out of favor with many who voted for him, especially Latinos, observers are split on whether the building pressure on Latino communities will benefit Democrats like they predict.
“If you had asked me a year ago, I would have said ‘of course, this is going to hurt (Republicans),’” said Guadalupe Correa, an immigration expert and former chairwoman of the Government Department at the University of Texas in Brownsville who now teaches at George Mason University outside Washington, D.C. “Today, I would also say yes, but I don’t know to what degree.” Trump factor
Trump’s election in 2016 with nearly 30 percent of the Hispanic vote — despite his many taunts against Mexican immigrants — has forced a revision in how analysts must view the Latino vote, she said.
“I thought that with all that rhetoric the Republican Party was going to lose Hispanic support, and that the Hispanic vote was going to really have an impact on the election,” Correa said. “Well, it happened that more Hispanics voted for Donald Trump than I would have assumed. Or the Hispanic vote just wasn’t as important as I had assumed.”
Despite Trump’s provocative rhetoric about building a massive border wall and creating a “deportation force,” Hispanic voters in 2016 were only about 11 percent of the electorate nationwide, about the same as in 2012.
“It’s clear that the Hispanic vote is not monolithic and that neither party can take the vote for granted,” said Javier Palomarez, president and CEO of the Washington-based Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “Elected officials, on both sides of the aisle, should be working hard to earn the Hispanic vote and the trust of the Hispanic constituency.”
Surges in the Latino vote have been predicted before, but they did not turn out in big numbers to protest Trump.
Latinos did vote for Hillary Clinton by more than 2-to-1, according to exit polls. But 2016 underscored that Latinos are not ideologically monolithic, even if they generally break for Democrats, much like other minority groups, political scientists have posited.
There are other factors as well, including Hispanics’ low voter participation rates, particularly in Texas.
They don’t all have the same concerns, either. Though many Salvadorans enjoy protections from the Temporary Protected Status program Trump is phasing out, Correa said, it doesn’t affect most Hispanics. At the same time, many Hispanic conservatives have little more sympathy for illegal immigration than other Americans.
“Plus, there is a segment of the population that has been in the country for generations, and are not voting as a class,” she
“Before a year and a half ago, I had never had to think about the fact I was Mexican. Trump changed everything. I always carry my passport now so that if I ever get stopped, I can prove that I am a U.S. citizen. If Latinas voted in numbers, we could be the Blue Wave that the Democrats are hoping for.” Soraya Colli, Democratic activist
said. “Many of them voted for Trump because of the way they identify themselves in politics. Identity politics play in very different ways, and it’s not so straightforward.”
“There are other factors that impact how the Hispanic population votes,” Correa added. “This is all happening now. It is very confusing, and we don’t know if the issues are going to be different by the end of the year. There could be North Korea, or any number of things.”
In 2014, when he was elected governor, Abbott received about 44 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, giving the party optimism that those numbers could grow further in the 2018 elections. But that optimism is now diminished, with Trump getting much of the blame.
Even so, Alfonso Aguilar, a former George W. Bush administration official and executive director of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, thinks Democrats “make a huge mistake by thinking they have a hold on the Hispanic vote — just like they didn’t understand why average Americans would vote for Trump, they still don’t get why Hispanics voted for Trump.
“They might not like the man, but they respond to some of his ideas,” Aguilar said.
Aguilar supports the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, as do many Republicans. While he wants to see the issue resolved, he accuses liberal activists of turning it into a wedge issue by threatening a government shutdown over a deal, something he thinks would backfire on Democrats.
He also accuses Democrats of ignoring the diversity of the Latino community in the U.S., which he considers an artificial construct.
“You cannot apply the African-American model to the Latino community,” Aguilar said. “The African-American model is a homogenous experience. The Latino is not.” Following the rules
Ask Javier Monte, 38, a construction foreman who has lived in Texas for two generations, whether he is a Democrat or Republican and he rolls his eyes before answering. “I voted Republican when I voted,” he said. “I agree on most of what they want. The rest I can live with. And deportation? My family came here legally. We followed the rules. Others should do that, too. If it’s the law, it’s the law for everybody.”
His friend, Ray Lopez Padreda, 40, stands nearby shaking his head.
“He’s wrong. A lot of good people who have never done anything wrong are going to get hurt,” he says, admitting that he has never voted in the 14 years he has lived in Texas. “I got signed up a couple of times, but I never went out. We never voted in Mexico,” he said. “I just want to keep my head down and keep working and have a good life. The politics don’t involve me.”
At the same time, Soraya Colli, 40, a Texas-born Democratic Party activist in Dallas, predicts this will be the year Texas’ Latino voice is heard.
“Before a year and a half ago, I had never had to think about the fact I was Mexican,” she said. “Trump changed everything. I always carry my passport now so that if I ever get stopped, I can prove that I am a U.S. citizen. If Latinas voted in numbers, we could be the Blue Wave that the Democrats are hoping for.”
State Sen. Sylvia Garcia, a Houston Democrat running for Congress, has hopes for the same wave. “We’re running a campaign for Congress, but we are also running a campaign to energize and increase the minority vote,” she said, echoing the sentiments of Democratic Party activists in Dallas who are hoping a Blue Wave will help them take local offices and legislative seats from Republicans, even if the party does not win its first statewide office after a 24-year drought.
“This is a building process that will take time,” Colli said.
While Latinos have been underrepresented at the polls in the past, some activists believe that could change going into the second year of Trump’s presidency, particularly if a border wall progresses while the hopes for Dreamers recede like the TPS program did for Salvadorans.
“I see Hispanic voters looking at these issues and really thinking about coming out to vote,” said Vanessa Rodriguez, a Dreamer from Austin who met with lawmakers from Texas last week in Washington. “For some time a lot of Latinos have not realized that a lot of power is in their hands when it comes to voting.”
As a 19-year-old immigrant living in the country without legal permission, Rodriguez, whose parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 6, will not herself be able to vote. But she’s become active in politics nonetheless.
“All these issues surfacing are making an impact,” she said. “People are becoming more aware, and the more that this issue (DACA) is prolonged and is left up in the air without resolution, more people are looking at voting as a way of guaranteeing that something will be done.”
U.S. Sen. John Cornyn is among Republican leaders in Washington who are confident that Trump’s policies will resonate with many in the Hispanic community, especially on the economy and lax enforcement of immigration laws that are blamed for much of the current political mess.
Cornyn focused on minority outreach in his last re-election bid, and said he recently met with a group of Hispanic leaders who reiterated that many immigrants and Hispanic voters care about security.
“I think the president is uniquely situated to come up with a solution that not only demonstrates compassion but also demonstrates a commitment to security,” Cornyn said.