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César Zepeda. Photo by Manjula Varghese.

Immigrant community prepares for 2016 election

on November 16, 2015

The terrorist attacks in Paris last week reignited a global conversation about border security as refugees continue to flee into Europe and the topic of immigration briefly took center stage in the U.S. presidential debates.

One of the suicide bombers in Paris entered Europe on a Syrian passport, prompting new worries that groups of migrants exiting the Middle East or Latin America open paths for extremists and criminals to cross borders undetected.

The latest round of U.S. presidential campaign debates has left many immigration activists wondering if border issues, employment opportunities and pathways to citizenship will ever surpass terrorism in the ongoing debate over immigration.

On Saturday night in Des Moines, frontrunners for the Democratic presidential nomination reflected on the Paris attacks and ongoing refugee crisis in Europe, but gave little attention to the economic and social issues raised by the movement of people closer to home.

The Democratic debate came less than a week after the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana blocked executive orders issued by President Obama almost a year ago that would have allowed millions of undocumented immigrants to stay in the county legally. The Supreme Court, and whoever is elected as the next president, will likely decide the fate of Obama’s action on immigration.

Latino voters in the Bay Area are paying close attention to the words of candidates from both parties. Cities with large numbers of undocumented immigrants, like Richmond, will play an important role in the 2016 presidential election, according to both political analysts and local voters. The immigrant community in Richmond has already begun organizing get-out-the-vote efforts for 2016.

At a small Democratic debate party held in Richmond during the party’s first debate in October, one Latino voter said that Democratic politicians promising to enact comprehensive immigration reform have lost credibility. Other Latinos feel let down by the Obama administration for not doing enough to help the nation’s immigrants.

The Republican candidates, who debated last week in Milwaukee, showed no such reluctance to take up the immigration issue. Donald Trump referred to the 5th Circuit’s ruling as a “terrific thing” and vowed to build a wall between the United States and Mexico—to keep immigrants out—if elected president.

“If you think walls don’t work, all you have to do is ask Israel,” Trump said in Milwaukee.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush attempted to distance themselves from Trump, with Kasich proposing that all law-abiding undocumented immigrants have the opportunity to stay in the United States after paying a fine.

Bush asserted that deporting all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants currently living in the country would “send a signal that we’re not the kind of country that I know America is.”

Unlike the Republican candidates, Democrats spent just a few minutes discussing immigration during the party’s debate in Des Moines on Saturday night.

When the subject came up, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley referred to Trump as an “immigration-bashing carnival barker” and then claimed that legalizing the country’s undocumented immigrants would increase wages.

Despite the events in Paris, O’Malley said that the United States should accept 65,000 Syrian refugees, far more than the 10,000 that the Obama administration has proposed to admit in the coming year.

Hilary Clinton agreed with O’Malley’s statement on Syrian refugees and later added that she supported Obama’s executive action that would give immigrants “a full chance at citizenship.”

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders claimed that he could not say how many Syrian refugees the country should take in, but asserted that, “the United States should take its full responsibility in helping those people.”

All three of the Democratic candidates at Saturday night’s debate approve of expanding some parts of Obamacare to undocumented immigrants in the United States.

Yet the brief attempts by Democrats to identify themselves as the party of choice for immigrant voters may have fallen flat. An analysis by NBC News documented little interest in immigration reform among Democrats, based on keywords used during recent televised presidential debates. A similar comparison conducted by Newsweek also showed that Republicans spent more time than Democrats discussing immigration.

No significant immigration legislation has been passed since the Reagan administration. Now the question has become whether it’s fair to fault the Obama administration and the Democratic minority in Congress.

“I think it’s naive for people to say that Democrats haven’t done enough to fix the country’s immigration problems,” said Larry Gerston, professor emeritus of political science at San Jose State University. “The president did all he could through executive action, but unfortunately it takes all three branches of government to create any new policy—that’s political science 101.”

Democrats spend little time discussing immigration because they agree on the issue, Gerston said. That consensus may not have reached parts of the country with large populations of undocumented immigrants, like Richmond, where the community has begun talking far more about Republicans than Democrats.

Miriam Wong, the director of the Latina Center in Richmond, says that Donald Trump’s brazen promises to deport all of the country’s undocumented immigrants have earned him the nickname of La Trompeta—Spanish for “The Trumpet”—in Richmond’s Latino community.

“Trump has no idea what it’s like to not have a place at the table,” Wong said. “We’re trying to get people in Richmond to think carefully about the fact that the next president could open or close the door for immigrants.”

Reforming the country’s immigration system has long been a key issue for Hispanic voters, but new studies show there may be a reason why the Democrats have spent so little time addressing the issue during their debates.

Hispanics born in the United States were less likely than immigrants to say Congress should pass significant new immigration legislation, according to the Pew Research Center. They are also less apt to vote than other native-born residents.

Although the number of eligible Latino voters increased by 19 percent between the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections, the percentage of those voters who made it to the polls in 2012 decreased by 2 percent.

Not everyone agrees that the Latino vote holds less importance than it once did, especially for Democrats. David Danmore, a senior analyst at the opinion research firm Latino Decisions, says that roughly 80 percent of Latinos voted Democratic in the last election. But it wasn’t always that way. More than half of the Latino voters surveyed by Latino Decisions said they had voted for a Republican at least once before.

“Latinos are actually considered swing voters,” Danmore said, “but they’re heavily leaning Democratic right now because of the immigration situation.”

Contra Costa County has one of the largest communities of undocumented immigrants in the state, and activists in Richmond believe they can play a significant role in mobilizing Latinos during election season. Last year, organizers from Richmond helped form Somos Latin@s, a community organization aimed at increasing the Latino community’s role in the political process.

The “@” sign included in the written form of Somos Latin@s refers to both the masculine ‘o’ and feminine ‘a’ in the written form of Spanish words, designed to signify to Latinos that everyone is welcome to participate. Latin American grassroots organizations often use the “@” sign to foment a sense of inclusion. The organization’s founders believe these familiar strategies will resonate with Richmond’s Latino community.

“In Latin America, you see people driving around in cars with megaphones telling people who to vote for during elections,” said César Zepeda, a cofounder of Somos Latin@s who spent part of his childhood in Mexico. “Immigrants from Latin America are far more politically active than most people think.”

Zepeda and other activists in Richmond believe they can replicate the Latin American political tradition here in the United States. Even though Richmond’s undocumented community does have the right to vote, they can mobilize relatives and friends with legal status to cast ballots. Somos Latin@s also hopes to spark political change at the local level by pushing the city council to provide a Spanish-language translator at their meetings. A third of Richmond’s population speaks Spanish.

Studies have shown that local campaigns in areas with low voter participation aimed at increasing political activity have worked and even created habitual voters. Attempts to mobilize Latinos who are less assimilated to American culture are particularly successful.

“Latinos are more likely to vote when someone of their same ethnicity calls or knocks on their door and asks them to,” said Chris Zepeda-Millán, a professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. “People without papers can actually have a larger impact during elections by talking to and convincing several of their family members, friends and neighbors to vote than if they just cast one vote themselves.”

The current roster of presidential candidates may have a long way to go in harnessing this network of Latino voters. But as the next election gets underway, La Trompeta has already become the instrument sounding the call to political activism, and Richmond’s immigrants have already begun to muster.

Some recent arrivals to the Bay Area like Lucero Ramírez, 32, an undocumented immigrant who lives in Richmond, say they don’t believe a candidate like Trump can win an election by promising to deport the foreign workers who the American economy depends on.

“The U.S. is made of immigrants,” Ramírez said. “If you take us away, the whole country will go down.”


  1. Tony Suggs on November 17, 2015 at 1:24 pm

    Three issues with this article.

    1) It interchanges “immigrant” and “undocumented” freely so that it is impossible to tell which particular group it is speaking of.

    2) Trump nor any other politician is against LEGAL immigration. ILLEGAL immigration is what was discussed during the debates.

    There is a difference.

    Finally, 3).

    All foreign workers are NOT “undocumented.” I have traveled all over the US on business and I can say without a doubt that there are plenty areas of the country that do not use “undocumented” workers.

    So the country will not “go down” if the undocumented are forced to leave, not that it will ever happen given the current political status quo.

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