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‘There is a lot at stake for my family.’ Latino voters on why this election matters

Latino Americans are at the center of a changing electorate this presidential election. With a record 32 million eligible Latino voters this year in the United States, they make up the largest minority voting group. But their interests are far from monolithic, and both President Donald Trump and his Democratic opponent Joe Biden have invested time and money in courting them.

A number of Latino voters told the PBS NewsHour that they planned to vote for Democratic nominee Joe Biden this year, expressing their choice as a vote against President Donald Trump’s controversial immigration policies and rhetoric rather than as enthusiasm for the former vice president. National polls also show Biden is leading the Latino vote.

Yet voters who spoke to the NewsHour who favor the president show how Trump maintains strong support among certain segments of the community, particularly in key swing states such as Florida.

Latino voters trace their heritages back to a profusion of countries with different cultures and political traditions. More than 70 percent of Latinos identified as either Catholic or Protestant as of 2018, and those faiths can translate to Republican votes. In 2016, Trump did better among Latino evangelicals than with the Latino electorate as a whole, noted Mark Hugo Lopez, the director of demography research and global migration at Pew Research Center. A recent poll found that more than a quarter of Hispanic Catholics intend to vote for Trump this year.

Latinos who settled in the U.S. long ago tend to lean less Democratic, according to Latino Decisions polling from 2016, as do those who hail from countries such as Cuba, where Republicans have strong support from voters, particularly in the swing state of Florida. In that state, Latinos make up 17 percent of registered voters this year, and the largest group — Cuban-Americans — mostly identify as Republican.

The new milestone in the number of eligible Latino voters comes five years after Trump kicked off his first campaign by using language targeted at Mexican immigrants, the largest Latino group living in the U.S. His administration has since pursued controversial immigration policies, including a “zero-tolerance” directive that resulted in the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the border, as well as efforts to end DACA protections, which shield undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children from deportation.

“I deeply dislike that he is representing the country I have chosen to become a citizen of,” said Alejandra Castañeda, a Denver resident who told the PBS NewsHour that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric spurred her to vote for the first time in 2018.

Many voters echoed that sentiment, and were also concerned about Trump’s approach to other issues, such as health care and the coronavirus. In the U.S., Latinos have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, with members of the community losing jobs and dying at higher rates than white Americans. This has also fueled fears about the safety of going to the polls to vote.

Yet, with 4 million more Latinos eligible to vote this election than in 2016, “it’s likely that we will see a record turnout” of those voters, Lopez said.

“If you go down to Florida, we registered easily over a thousand, likely over 2,000 voters,” said Helder Toste, who has been campaigning for Trump as the Republican National Committee’s national Hispanic engagement coordinator. “All those people are registering for the first time. They’re becoming citizens. And, you know, they kind of see the big government, heavy-handed approach from Democrats…And that is very similar to what they saw with their own eyes in their home countries,” he said.

At the same time, some community organizers say that political campaigns have not done enough to engage this group. Latino voters are less likely than the overall U.S. electorate to say they are extremely motivated to vote in Tuesday’s contest, according to the Pew Research Center’s Lopez.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a campaign director for progressive political organization Mijente, has seen last-minute efforts to connect with Latino voters in battleground states, but also believes there has been “ historic divestment” in the community.

“Two, three weeks before the election, folks are flooded with information,” Gonzalez said. “It doesn’t make up for years and years of not having those conversations.”

Toste said he thought that Democrats have failed to connect by casting Latinos as “one massive voting bloc” and treating them like “they’re all the same.”

Although there has been a surge in mail-in and absentee voting this year amid the virus, Democrats have worried about low Latino turnout for early voting in states like Florida and Pennsylvania. As of last Friday, data from Democratic polling firm Catalist indicated that two-thirds of Latino voters had not yet cast their vote in Arizona, nor had half of Latino voters in Florida.

Add to that targeted disinformation campaigns and a history of voter suppression laws in the U.S., and it’s not certain what turnout will look like on Nov. 3.

And yet, “this could be the election where everyone understands you can no longer win” without these voters, Joe Garcia, a close watcher of Arizona politics, recently told the PBS NewsHour’s Stephanie Sy.

More than a dozen Latino voters talked with the NewsHour ahead of the election about the issues they’re most concerned about heading into the final day of voting. Here are some of their stories.

Frustration with COVID-19 relief stalemate

Carl Francisco José Senna
76, Westbrook, Maine

Carl Francisco José Senna, 76, of Westbrook, Maine

“I’m still undecided, that’s the only way I can put it,” Senna, who lived in Texas and Canada prior to moving to Maine, said. He remained undecided as of last Thursday. Senna expressed frustration with gridlock in Congress over a second deal on economic relief amid the COVID-19 pandemic: “I’m pretty upset with Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden right now because they’ve done nothing for the people on the stimulus check. [Biden and Harris] have been attacking Trump, and Trump’s been attacking them. It’s been back and forth. And I’m sure a lot of people like me need that stimulus check. And, you know, it’s just hard to make sense of who is really, you know, screwing up.”

Senna’s father immigrated to the U.S. from Monterrey in Nuevo León, Mexico. He said that this year’s presidential candidates “haven’t connected with segments of the Latino vote,” in his view.

Asked whether there is anything the candidates could do to earn his vote between now and Nov. 3, Senna said: “Release the money on the stimulus check…That would help. You know, if someone would show real leadership. I don’t see any leadership right now.”

Supportive of Trump’s Cuba policies

Rey Anthony
24, Miami

Rey Anthony, 24, of Miami

“I’m a third-generation Cuban-American. My grandparents and great-grandparents fled Cuba shortly after the regime took hold there in the 1960s,” said Rey Anthony, who serves as a co-chair of the Cuban-American Republicans of Florida and is a PhD student at Florida International University.

“Support for President Trump is sky-high among Cuban Americans, and is sky-high among Venezuelans. And a lot of people have a tough time maybe understanding that or digesting that. And it is because when you live in Miami — we’re closer to Havana, we’re closer to Caracas, we’re closer to Managua than we already see than we are to D.C. or Tallahassee. This is our backyard. We’re very in tune with what’s going on in our homelands. And so what affects those countries also affects us here.”

“I think the biggest impact that [Trump] has had is in terms of policy. Of resetting Obama’s policy with Cuba from 2014 to what we have now, which is, of course, imposing additional sanctions, enforcing laws that are already in the books and not giving more oxygen to the regime in terms of flights and cruises,” Anthony said.

“That’s why we’re just seeing incredible enthusiasm among Cuban-Americans in Florida for the president.”

Turned off by Trump’s immigration policies

Julian Gonzalez-Salamanca
32, Newton, Kansas

Julian Gonzalez-Salamanca, 32, of Newton, Kansas

“I’m a citizen now, that’s why I can vote for the first time. But I believe strongly that this country needs immigration reform. There are many people like me, you know, good, working people, many of them are educated people that came from their countries in Latin America trying to find a better opportunity in this country and face trouble trying to get documented. And many of the reasons could be money. I mean, we hear from President Trump, for example, saying, ‘We want to welcome everybody, but they have to come here legally.’ But then when you talk about what is the process of coming here legally to the country, you find out that you need a lawyer, and you need other things. And that’s a lot of money,” said Gonzalez-Salamanca, who emigrated from Colombia. “I remember spending at least $4,000, $5,000 on immigration processing and lawyers to get this thing done…I think it is very, very simple to say ‘we want everybody, you just have to be legal.’ Well, let’s talk about the process. Right?”

Gonzalez-Salamanca, whose wife is also American, said he’s very nervous about the election: “If Trump wins, we’ve talked about leaving the country.”

Tatiana Pullard
23, New Orleans

Tatiana Pullard, 23, of New Orleans

“My family, everybody came here when they were young in the late ‘80s,” said Pullard, whose father emigrated from Nicaragua.

“But still, you have family that may not be legal yet. And you just worry about them. You have friends that came here, maybe part of DACA,” she said. The Trump administration in 2017 announced its plan to end the Obama-era policy. In July, the Supreme Court blocked those efforts by the administration, not based on the merits of the argument, but based on whether it attempted to do so lawfully. However, since the Trump administration tried to end the program in 2017, no new applications have been accepted.

“You just worry about these people because in the eyes of some, they’re just viewed as lawbreakers, just not quality people, but the people that you know, and the people who you love are not anybody that should be put in these cages, just living this horrible life. That’s something that’s been very important to me with voting. I don’t want what we have to continue, I’d rather something more humane be put in place.”

Cristina Jiménez
36, New York

Cristina Jiménez of United We Dream Action speaks to potential voters in Miami ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.

“I became a citizen last year after many years of being undocumented,” said Jiménez, whose family came to the U.S. from Ecuador. She has long advocated for undocumented youth through the organization she co-founded, United We Dream, as well as its political arm United We Dream Action.

“For me, this election is personal and there is a lot at stake for my family,” she said, noting that her brother has been protected by DACA. “We have been living with the anxiety and uncertainty of not knowing what will happen or whether my brother will be able to drive without fearing deportation and work…because Trump has been attacking and dismantling the program.”

“There’s certainly a lot of frustration and anger out there. There’s also a lot of fear because of all of the attacks that we’re seeing in our community,” she said. “At the same time, in spite of [DACA recipients] not having the right to vote, right now, they have been volunteering their time, including my brother, to call on voters and tell them that they should use their right to vote.”

“Disinformation in the Latinx community is a big challenge,” said Jiménez, who noted that conspiracy theories such as QAnon spread easily in the WhatsApp groups that many Latinos share with their families.

“It’s creating so much distrust of the political parties that people would rather not vote.” Still, she added, “I feel hopeful,” about the work young people in her network are doing. “All the phone banking, text messaging that we’ve been doing, we’ve reached millions and millions of voters. That’s exhausting work but also super hopeful.”

Alejandra X. Castañeda
46, Denver

Alejandra X. Castañeda, 46, of Denver

“It took me a long time to decide to become a U.S. citizen. Mostly because I feel and have seen how citizenship and patriotism are used to separate human beings, decide who is in or out, has rights or doesn’t,” said Castañeda, who is originally from Mexico and came to the U.S. when she was 20. “After the 2016 presidential election, I decided I couldn’t stand on the sidelines anymore. I’d actually never voted before, in any country. The midterm elections in 2018 was the first time I voted ever in my life, at 44 years old.”

Castañeda said she had long been turned off by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric. “It’s not only anti-immigrant, it’s anti-Mexican immigrant. I know how much the Mexican people have done for this country,” she said. “I grew up with this American influence of music and pop, and the U.S. being the American dream…and then you come here and realize how little you’re appreciated, how undocumented immigrants are exploited and at the same time hated.” She pointed to the food system workers who have been essential during the pandemic.

She added she thought Trump is a misogynist and a chauvinist, saying, “I deeply dislike that he is representing the country I have chosen to become a citizen of.”

Fearful of the U.S. sliding further to the left

Bernardo Munoz
50, Broward County, Florida

Bernardo Munoz, 50, of Broward County, Florida

“As an immigrant, I came here because the United States is the only country I see where you have the freedom or opportunity to get ahead and do better for yourself,” said Munoz, who emigrated from the Dominican Republic in 1986. “In the U.S. you go down and you can always start again and no one will judge you. In other countries, if you go down, there are few opportunities for you to get back again. I have been in other countries where I see socialism and communism — people don’t have the freedom we have here.”

While Biden is not running on a platform that resembles socialism, Republicans have pointed to the recent election of Reps. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, who identify as democratic socialists, as evidence that the party is headed in that direction. “I don’t want this country to become Venezuela,” Munoz said. “I’ve been to Venezuela, China, France. I see socialism, I see how it works. Why would we want that here? I came to this country — like a lot of my family and friends — to do better.”

Munoz said Trump’s message of law and order following this summer’s protests against racial injustice resonated with him, as well.

Supportive of Trump’s deregulation efforts

Rey Torres
40, Sun Tan Valley, Arizona

Rey Torres, 40, of Sun Tan Valley, Arizona

“The president has finally spoken to something that has just never gotten any headlines: the mismanagement of our forests,” said Torres, who is a hunter and outdoorsman and said he believes Obama-era environmental policies to protect federal lands had been harmful where he lives. He said he supports Trump’s rollback of these protections, which have opened up the lands to logging and development, and said that he believed efforts to manage federal lands had made his state more susceptible to forest fires. “We haven’t had any kind of cheerleader in the executive office that’s understood that issue.”

Torres, whose family emigrated from Mexico more than 100 years ago, said it was a mistake for Democrats to view the Latino community in the U.S. through the lens of immigration.

“People who have been here for more than a century, have a very different view of politics and immigration policy, and don’t see [Trump] as the bogeyman that more recent arrivals that didn’t come here legally do. A lot in Arizona do support the president because they don’t think it’s fair to use immigrants as a heartstring-pulling tactic.”

Hopeful Biden can move the needle on health care, economy

Jessica Castellanos
28, Los Angeles

Jessica Castellanos, 28, of Los Angeles

“I’m voting for Biden, as is my immediate family. Some of the more prevalent concerns that I have right now are definitely health care, predominantly women’s health care. I hear this thrown around a lot in the debate or in the news where it’s mostly men talking about women’s health. And that really concerns me right now,” Castellanos said. She added that the recent Supreme Court hearings for Justice Amy Coney Barrett — a conservative judge who was tapped by Trump — had brought these concerns to the fore.

“The elders in my family are very pro-Trump. They’re very conservative,” Castellanos, whose grandparents came from Guatemala, said. “But we’re not a monolith.”

“I always encourage all of my Latino brothers and sisters to go out and vote. We always say, ‘tu voto es tu voz,’ or ‘your vote is your voice.’ It’s something that I’ve heard a lot growing up and I try to encourage everyone to get out there and vote. There’s a lot of us — a lot. So we can make a difference. If we can make a big enough difference in the economy to…have the most buying power, then we have the most power to change our country.”

“I’m just hoping that as more people of color find their voices, that everyone around us, the status quo, can realize that America doesn’t look the way that the founding fathers thought it would look. And so it’s time to adapt our models to really reflect the people that it serves.”

Ricardo Nuñez
38, Oakland, California

Ricardo Nunez, 38, of Oakland, California

“We have Biden, who I’m not excited about, and I have a lot of problems with,” Nuñez said. But in hoping to move toward a society “that’s more equitable and democratic and participatory and community-oriented,” he feels there’s no chance to move toward that vision with the Trump administration.

He said he favors left-leaning policies that seek to give back economic control of housing and businesses to communities, and that “by getting a Biden in…they at least are on that side of the political spectrum, to let us in the door.”

“I think my identity shaped the way that I’m moving through my political choices and the way that I show up in the world. My abuelo came from Mexico, but was one of the people who was able to stay, as opposed to being pushed out,” said Nuñez. “When the president is calling my community and my ancestors rapists and murderers, that’s definitely going to impact me. There are no more dog whistles — they’re being explicit about what they believe.”

Seeking a less divided future with a third party

Martha Bueno
41, Miami

Martha Bueno, 41, of Miami

“My parents are Cuban. They left Cuba after Fidel Castro took power and…ultimately, my father had to leave Cuba by swimming. He swam Guantanamo Bay to get here,” Bueno said. “So it’s been instilled in me forever, you know, the notion that a government that has that type of control over somebody is a bad thing. So I’ve been a Libertarian since 2000.”

She said she plans to vote for Libertarian candidate Jo Jorgensen “because I believe the government is too big, too intrusive, too bossy. It is not about Jo Jorgensen, even though I do like her a lot. It is about watching what is happening in this country and watching how people are so divided.”

Bueno said that she had convinced her Republican mother to vote for Jorgensen, as well as a few other members of the Hispanic community. But she said she believed the two-party system, as well as some media outlets’ propensity to spread misinformation, had made Americans more divided than ever. “We’re kind of talking over each other,” Bueno said. “So that’s what I like about the Libertarian Party. It’s not a left-right dichotomy. It is not to choose one or the other. It is an alternative, completely other.”

“We have a lot of people that don’t even believe in our system, and that is an ultimate threat to liberty,” she added.

Voting for more than just the Latino community

Michael Collado
28, Miami

Michael Collado, 28, of Miami

“There are there are many reasons why I’m voting for Joe Biden, but the number one reason is the state of our democracy, which feels very dramatic,” Collado said.

Collado said he has been “confused every single day” by the Trump presidency, and would still vote for Joe Biden even if a more traditional Republican were on the presidential ticket this year.

“I’m pretty hopeful about the situation. I think it’s doable that Joe Biden’s going to win, as long as you get people to vote. My mom has been incredible with this. She got my young cousins to register. They’re 18 and 21. They’re excited about the process.”

“It’s not just about my identity,” Collado said. “It’s about others,” too.

“It’s about trans people, it’s about Black people, it’s about Black Latinos. So, yeah, I’m not going in thinking, well, I’m a Latino, I have to vote this way.”