PHILADELPHIA ― In 2006, there were the May Day marches. In 2010, the Dream Act failed. In 2012, the president implemented deferred action for undocumented childhood arrivals. In 2013, the Senate passed immigration reform legislation. That legislation went nowhere ― so in 2014, the president announced deferred action for undocumented parents of Americans.
In 2016, the Supreme Court stalled the president’s executive actions on immigration.
Latinos had high hopes for the last 10 years, but have been left with no substantive policy wins for their community and are witnessing an election cycle that began with a candidate for the Republican nomination calling Mexicans “criminals” and “rapists.”
In July, Republicans formally nominated that candidate for the presidency of the United States.
“Right now these forces are knocking on our door and they’re knocking on our door saying ‘we are not afraid of you’ ― it’s kind of like a teasing,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, head of Voto Latino, a nonprofit focused on mobilizing Latinos.
Donald Trump is the one knocking, and with him comes the promise of a border wall, a reversal of all of President Barack Obama’s executive actions, mass deportations and a leader who incites racist vitriol toward Latinos ― those born in the U.S., those immigrating and those who are undocumented.
For Latinos at the Democratic National Convention, one thing was clear: This is a moment unlike any before in American politics. A moment to prove to those running for the presidency ― and other levels of office ― that they won’t win unless they prioritize the Latino voter. They have the power: 27.3 million Latinos are estimated to be eligible to vote on election day. But it remains to be seen whether they’ll use it.
Out of those eligible voters, nearly half will be millennials, a notoriously difficult group to get to the polls. But if primaries like Nevada’s are any indication, where a record number registered to vote this year, Latinos are priming themselves for this moment.
“Most people don’t realize that Latinos from now on will make the difference in who the president is,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) said at a Poder PAC event during the DNC honoring Latinas in politics. “We will choose. Most people don’t know that in a lot of these statewide races, we will choose.”
That’s what Amanda Renteria, national political director for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, is betting on. Speaking at the same fundraiser event in downtown Philadelphia, Renteria, a daughter of farm workers in California’s Central Valley, told the influential Latinos in attendance that the stakes couldn’t be higher.
“The world has actually seen Donald Trump disrespect and devalue us,” she said to cheers from the small crowd. “We need to show everyone in this country that once and for all, this is not how we’re going to be treated. So I need everyone in this room, we need to do everything we can to not just defeat Donald Trump in November but to absolutely overwhelmingly reject him.”
Later, in an interview with The Huffington Post, Renteria recalled past battles like the mass marches calling for immigrant rights, and the failed attempts by Congress to pass immigration reform, admitting that Latinos have learned some hard lessons along the way.
But there’s no doubt in her mind that this time is different.
“We’ve never had someone that has disrespected the community as much as Donald Trump has,” she said. “Not just immigrants but first, second, third, fourth generations. That really has united the Latino community in a way, that even if you are born here, you know he looks at your kids a little differently.”
We’ve never had someone that has disrespected the [Latino] community as much as Donald Trump has ... even if you are born here, you know he looks at your kids a little differently. Amanda Renteria, national political director, Hillary Clinton campaign
It’s not enough to be anti-Trump, however ― people have to actively be pro-Clinton. Some immigrant rights activists are holding out for deeper commitments and remain wary of the former secretary of state.
Renteria acknowledged this. Clinton will move on immigration reform in her “first 100 days,” Renteria said, repeating the Democratic nominee’s frequent pledge. “This is real.”
And her campaign won’t rely on Trump’s failures alone. It’s also about proving to Latino voters that the Democratic nominee is on their side. She has vowed to alleviate naturalization costs, close immigration detention centers run by private prisons and add to Obama’s DACA and DAPA actions.
Having run an unsuccessful bid for Congress herself, Renteria knows that getting communities of color involved is “much harder than a good commercial” highlighting the opponent’s awful rhetoric. Voters need to make a deep connection with the candidate.
“I don’t want to underestimate the importance of proving to Republicans that if you have a candidate like Trump we will turn out against you,” Renteria said. “That pushes Republicans to say, ‘If I am not a part of what Latinos need ― whether it’s comprehensive immigration reform, or education or the economy ― if we ignore this community, we lose time and time again.’”
That will trickle down the ballot, she added. Not only this year, but for years to come on the local, state and national election map.
“This is literally he does not want you if you have any Mexican heritage whatever generation you are,” continued Renteria, who is of Mexican descent herself. “And she wants to give you a voice in the White House.”
“My parents and so many parents came here for a better life, and to think that [Trump] will get elected and that notion no longer exists, it’s a big deal,” Renteria added.
The disparity between what Republicans and Democrats are offering for Latinos was on full display during the conventions. Hector E. Sanchez saw it.
Sanchez attended both conventions in his capacity as chair of the National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a coalition representing the nation’s leading Hispanic organizations. It’s a nonpartisan network focused on policy and doesn’t endorse anyone for the presidency. (Sanchez is also the executive director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.)
At the RNC, he recalled, “It’s unbelievable, they had the most anti-immigrant voices in the nation... some people from the KKK, and the general messaging was anti-immigrant, anti-welcome, anti-integration, anti-everything of values we should have as a nation.”
At the DNC, by contrast, he was relieved to see immigrants and Latinos given a platform on the convention stage. He noted the importance of the symbolism behind speeches like one given by Karla Ortiz, a U.S. citizen who fears that her undocumented parents will be deported.
“We are under such horrible attack that it is affecting the quality of life of families,” Sanchez said. “Hate crimes against Latinos are increasing; racial profiling against Latinos is increasing.”
That’s why, he added, if Clinton is elected, his organization will push for solid representation of Latinos in her cabinet ― he wants four ― and for her to demonstrate a serious commitment to immigration reform.
And if Clinton doesn’t deliver? That’s not possible, said Catherine Pino, co-founder of the Poder PAC.
“She can’t do that, you know why?” Pino asked. “If she wants to run again and be elected in four years, it won’t work. She knows.”
Pino has supported Clinton since 2008. When she lost, Pino was depressed. Drinking a margarita with close friends as they watched Clinton concede to Obama, Pino realized something needed to change. That’s when the Poder PAC was formed. Up until 2015, its mission was to fund Latinas running for all levels of elected office. Now, they’ve tailored their approach to focus on Latinas running for Congress.
If Latinos want their voices heard and their expectations met, Pino knows it’s not enough for Clinton to win the presidency. And since the Democratic establishment had a history of ignoring Latino candidates, Pino wanted to fill that gap.
“It’s been one of our frustrations,” Pino said. “We’re in D.C., we have a government relations firm and do a lot of work with [the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee], and we’ve taken them to task about supporting our candidates.”
Sayu Bhojwani is trying to fill the void as well. Bhojwani, the former New York City commissioner of immigrant affairs, kicked off an effort during the DNC to have what she calls new American caucuses established in legislatures nationwide.
Bhojwani, who heads the New American Leader Project along with a team of immigrant and first-generation elected officials, immigrated to the U.S about 30 years ago from Belize and is of Indian descent. One in five Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants. So the key to passing immigration reform, Bhojwani said, lies in getting first-generation Americans and newly naturalized citizens into office.
“There’s a big gap between us being asked to tell our stories and us being told, ‘This is what we commit to doing in order to make immigration reform happen,’” Bhojwani said.
While she knows the immigrant community’s animosity toward Trump runs deep, she doesn’t think it’s enough to create a true movement. Down-ballot races need to be a part of the strategy, she said.
“It can only be a political moment if we can show that we can flex our political muscles beyond the top of the ticket,” she said. “Otherwise we become heavily reliant on one person, who, because of the way American democracy works, is only one arm of our government. The fact that we keep making that mistake every election cycle, it just blows my mind.”