PHILADELPHIA ― As a child of Mexican immigrants who grew up in an Arizona border town, immigration is one of the issues closest to Rosa’s heart. Her daughter’s father is undocumented, so she has a personal stake in seeing the country’s system is reformed.
But don’t expect Rosa to vote for Hillary Clinton.
Instead, she was one of hundreds who’d gathered at City Hall here on Monday to urge the Democratic Party to support a moratorium on deportations and dismantle a detention system that’s congressionally mandated to keep 34,000 spaces to lock up immigrants every night. Rosa now lives in the South, and says she’ll probably vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
“I can’t see Clinton doing anything different on immigration,” Rosa, who declined to be identified by her full name to protect her daughter’s father, told The Huffington Post. “The only way for us to move forward is to organize ourselves.”
No One Repels Latino Voters Like Donald Trump
Donald Trump was the perfect gift for a Democratic Party hoping to retain its grip on the Latino vote. With his broad characterization of Mexican immigrants as rapist criminals, repeated calls for a giant border wall and and his insistence that a judge of Mexican descent was unfit to preside over a case against Trump University, the GOP presidential candidate has succeeded wildly in repelling Hispanic voters.
But even as the Democratic Party consolidates its hold on Latino voters with a far more welcoming message on immigration, an influential segment of the immigrant rights movement remains skeptical of both Clinton and her party, and plans to keep pushing them to deepen their commitments before offering full-throated support.
It’s a critical time for a movement that has won its grandest victories by pressuring Democrats who champion reform rather than Republicans who oppose it.
Compared to Trump, there’s little doubt that Clinton has staked out a much more pro-immigrant stance. She’s pledged to push for comprehensive immigration reform legislation with a pathway to citizenship within her first 100 days in office. She’s said she’d scale down the role of private prison corporations in immigrant detention. And she’s promised to go further than Barack Obama in using executive authority to curb deportations, even as Obama’s signature Deferred Action for Parents of Americans program, DAPA, can’t go into effect after the Supreme Court deadlocked on a decision.
Clinton has also attracted high-profile Dreamers like Lorella Praeli, who serves as the candidate’s Latino outreach director, and Astrid Silva, who spoke in support of Clinton before the Democratic National Convention on Monday night.
But some activists embittered by Obama’s failure to move on immigration reform when Democrats held both houses of Congress remain unconvinced.
“It’s scary for me, on the one hand, to to picture a Donald Trump presidency,” Erika Andiola, a prominent activist who worked on Hispanic media outreach for the Bernie Sanders campaign, told HuffPost. “But I’m cautious. Hillary has a lot to do to get us engaged.”
Despite embracing their cause, Clinton’s decades-long political career carries liabilities for many immigration activists. Some still associate her with President Bill Clinton’s 1996 expansion of the detention and deportation systems. Others interviewed by HuffPost criticized her role in the 2009 coup in Honduras, in which she brokered a deal that called for new elections instead of siding with virtually every Latin American government to demand ousted President Manuel Zelaya’s reinstatement.
In a widely viewed 2014 interview with CNN, Clinton also said that most unaccompanied minors arriving in the U.S. from Central America should be sent back so parents would stop sending their children on the dangerous journey through Mexico with human traffickers.
She has since walked the position back. The Democratic platform now calls for government funded legal representation for unaccompanied minors who cross into the U.S. illegally, which significantly raises their chances of winning asylum or other forms of humanitarian relief from deportation.
But many activists haven’t forgotten Clinton’s first reaction to the migrant crisis.
“She wanted to send the kids back,” Rosa said. “Based on what we know, with Hillary’s involvement in Honduras, you see there’s kids fleeing and that’s her response?”
Positioning herself as an extension of Obama likewise burdens Clinton with the president’s immigration failures. Obama has had major successes: He leaves behind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, DACA, which shields hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the U.S. as children from deportation. But his administration also reinstituted a family detention policy often accused of further traumatizing Central American mothers and children fleeing violence. And as of 2014, prosecutions of migrants for illegal entry and re-entry ― a practice reviled by activists and criticized by legal scholars ― still made up one-third of federal criminal cases.
Deportations also surged under Obama, leading even more mainstream Latino advocates, like National Council of La Raza President Janet Murguía, to deride the president as the “deporter in chief.” Though deportations last year dropped to nearly half of the 2013 peak of 438,000, the association is still there.
“We’re in an interesting conundrum,” journalist Jose Antonio Vargas said Monday during a panel of undocumented activists at the DNC, noting that Trump wants to deport undocumented immigrants en masse, while the sitting Democratic president has already done so.
“A lot of Democrats assume that Latinos are naturally going to vote for them because of the things Trump has said. But both parties have to earn our votes.”
Yet Vargas, who was born in the Philippines and is undocumented, cautioned against sitting the election out, saying that Trump is far more extreme and the Democratic platform is “worlds apart” from the GOP’s, which endorses Trump’s border wall. “DACA could be taken away on day one of a Trump presidency,” Vargas said.
The view espoused by the most progressive elements of the immigrant rights movements are far from universally accepted. An NBC News poll released last week showed Clinton walloping Trump among Latino voters, 76 percent to 14 percent. She has also won the backing of the vast majority of Latino members of Congress and other prominent Hispanic leaders, a large majority of whom are Democrats and view keeping Trump out of the White House as their top priority.
“This election is about us,” Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) said at a gathering of Latino leaders on Tuesday. “It’s personal.”
That doesn’t mean that younger voters are always following suit.
“She’s deeply flawed,” Francisco Cortes, 23, told HuffPost at the protest outside City Hall. “A lot of Democrats assume that Latinos are naturally going to vote for them because of the things Trump has said. But both parties have to earn our votes.”
Why Polling Well Among Latinos Isn’t Enough
Overcoming that skepticism will be a challenge for the Clinton campaign. She may be polling well with Latino voters, but the turnout rate of eligible Hispanics lags far behind that of both whites and blacks.
Even fewer Latino millennials turn out to vote than Hispanics in general. Millennials make up 44 percent of the Hispanic electorate, but only 38 percent of them cast a ballot in the last presidential election, according to the Pew Research Center. By contrast, 54 percent of non-Latino millennials voted in that election.
For young Latinos who are often distrustful of politicians and the two dominant parties, the immigrant rights movement has played an influential role, often allying itself with other progressive, identity-based social movements like Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights groups.
Roberto Lovato, a journalist who has worked for decades with Latino communities, said he thought most young Latinos who vote will “hold their nose” and cast a ballot for Clinton out of fear of Trump. But he doesn’t see the same energy that Obama’s candidacy inspired among young Hispanics back in 2008.
“There’s fire in the belly of Latino millennials,” Lovato told HuffPost. “If immigration is the measure of Latino politics, then voting for Democrats has proven an undeniable failure in terms of the system of immigrant punishment implemented by Bill Clinton, expanded by Obama and approved by Hillary Clinton.”
María Teresa Kumar, the CEO of Voto Latino, an organization that works to boost voter turnout, said she understood the frustration of many young Hispanics who might have joined the political process for the first time backing Sanders, but urged them to consider how much their continued participation helps shape policy.
“If you contrast where Hillary Clinton was before and after the primary, that’s phenomenal,” Kumar said, referring to activists’ impact. “There’s a responsibility to continually agitate the strings of power so our issues get addressed.”