In this year’s dead heat presidential election, both candidates are vying for the Latino vote.
Last Tuesday, President Obama told Iowa’s Des Moines Register that his re-election rests in the hands of Latino voters.
Jonathan Perez is one of those voters. The 19-year-old will cast his first vote for Obama on Nov. 6., but two weeks ago, he found himself face-to-face with the contradictions of the Obama administration’s immigration positions when his cousin, Luis Hernandez*, 19 and undocumented, faced the threat of deportation.
“You hear about it, but you don’t expect it to happen to anyone in your family and someone you love,” Perez said.
The way this tension is resolved in individual voters might be critical to how many Latinos show up to the polls on Election Day, and how they vote. Most Latinos support the president, but doing so requires some mental gymnastics: the Obama administration has deported undocumented immigrants at a record level but also passed legislation that will allow undocumented youth a chance to stay in the country legally.
According to a study released by the Pew Hispanic Center earlier this month, 61 percent of Latinos view the Democratic Party as one that has more concern for Latinos, while only 10 percent view the Republican Party this way.
But support for the president is not so black and white. According to Arturo Carmona, Director of Presente.org, an online community devoted to raising the Latino political voice, Latinos are becoming independents faster than any other community. “It’s a clear indication that political parties have a long way to go. The rhetoric and policy of the GOP are very anti-Latino. On the other end, we haven’t seen too many friendly policies from Obama,” Carmona said.
The president made great strides with Latinos in recent months when he passed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). That is the program Perez’s cousin was applying for when he was arrested.
Hernandez had spent the night drinking with friends, when he decided to drive his car home. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the hospital and a police officer placing him under arrest.
He was taken to the county jail in Martinez, where he was told that because of his undocumented status, he was being placed under an immigration hold. “They know what they’re in there for,” Hernandez said of his fellow inmates at the county jail. “My consequence is much worse. I get taken out of the country.”
From Martinez, Hernandez was passed to the Contra Costa West County Detention Facility where he stayed until 3 a.m. on a Monday morning, when Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers took him to a separate facility in San Francisco. There, with his hands and feet chained together, he awaited his fate.
Contra Costa County participates in the nationwide Secure Communities program, a fingerprint sharing network between the FBI and ICE that notifies federal agencies when local police arrest an undocumented immigrant.
Secure Communities has led to the national rise in deportation levels, which started during the Bush administration and intensified through Obama’s leadership, said Lisa Garcia Bedolla, chairwoman of the Center for Latino Policy Research at the University of California at Berkeley.
It was Secure Communities that brought Hernandez to San Francisco, where he prayed for a lucky break.
At the detention facility there, an officer approached Hernandez and asked him how long he had lived in the country. He told the officer that he arrived in the U.S. at the age of three, and has very little memory of his life before then.
“Thankfully the person handling my case, took into account that I have been here my whole life,” Hernandez said, “and it would be pointless to drop me off in the middle of Mexico if I have no family or anything there.”
The officer also recognized that Hernandez would qualify for DACA and let him go on the condition that he file his paperwork.
“Deferred action is important from a symbolic standpoint,” said Berkeley’s Lisa Garcia Bedolla. She said she recognizes that many critics view DACA as a temporary fix that is fraught with risk. But even a temporary fix will help to alleviate the unique stresses that many undocumented youth face, she said.
Hernandez and Perez view DACA as a sign of a more positive future for the nation’s undocumented Latinos.
Like his cousin, Perez has had his own struggle with law enforcement. Growing up in a single-parent immigrant household was difficult, Perez said, and led him to fill his early teenage years with selling drugs and stealing cars. After nearly a year on the run for evading house arrest, Perez turned himself in and reformed during a one-month stint in jail.
Now, he fills his days working with Contra Costa Interfaith Supporting Community Organization, where he remains active in civic engagement and the group’s prisoner reentry effort. He will vote for the first time this year, and views the president’s record level of deportations as a way to keep his opponents “content” while he works to prepare the framework for more comprehensive immigration reform, which Perez believes the president will pass during his second term.
In the meantime, while his cousin Luis Hernandez awaits his DACA approval, Perez works to encourage other Latinos with the power to vote to turn out on Election Day.
“There are so many people out there that wish they could vote so why would I take that for granted?” Perez said. “I have felt how it feels to have your rights and everything be taken from you and not be able to do anything about it. So now that I have my freedom, I take advantage of everything I can. But at the same time I don’t take it for granted.”
Even without a vote, Hernandez is still rooting for an Obama victory.
“What he did helped me out, and there must be millions of other kids in my situation who have been helped out by this,” he said.
*Individual’s name has been changed at his request due to privacy concerns.