By Ed Pilkington
January 25, 2016
Nobody could accuse Erika Andiola or César Vargas of joining Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign because they fantasized about working in the West Wing. As “Dreamers”, young immigrants protected by presidential action, his Latino outreach directors keenly feel the limits that bound their ambitions.
Not only will the young Mexicans be barred from voting for the Vermont senator as he campaigns for the Democratic nomination this spring, they will also be blocked from the polls in November, after devoting more than a year of their lives to the election. And should Sanders win the nomination and the presidency, they will also be prohibited from following him into the White House.
“Only US citizens get to work at the White House,” Vargas said ruefully, speaking in the bustling Sanders headquarters in Burlington, Vermont. “But that’s what this campaign is all about for us – we cannot vote, but we do have a voice.”
Three hundred miles away in downtown Brooklyn, a similar dynamic is playing out in Hillary Clinton’s headquarters. Clinton’s core team may be approximately 10 times bigger than Sanders’ 30 people – she has about 300 packed into the entire floor of an office block – but here too a “Dreamer” can be found at the pulsing heart of the operation.
Her name is Lorella Praeli, and she leads the team seeking to move the massive Hispanic electorate to help put Clinton in the White House. Unlike her counterparts in the Sanders camp, she could taste life in the West Wing should her boss win.
At 27, she has lived in America for 17 years, though only as a US citizen for a month – this is her first voting election. She came to the US from Peru at 10, in search of medical care for an accident that cost her a leg. For the next 13 years she lived as an undocumented immigrant, and only acquired a green card after marriage.
She says her decision to join Clinton was “very personal”. Her mother Chela is still undocumented, and her sister is on a “deferred action” permit, known as DACA, the same status now held by Sanders’s Latino directors.
“My family has become for me a personal microcosm of why the stakes are so darn high in this election,” Praeli said.
The appointment of Dreamers to central roles within the two main Democratic campaigns marks an historic shift in the profile of Latinos in US politics. In previous cycles, Hispanic strategists and pollsters were deployed, but only at the margins.
Now they are at the epicenter. The sea change is not coincidental: it partly reflects the growing demographic power ofHispanic people in the United States, and partly recognizes that the debate over the country’s 11 million undocumented immigrants has, with the help of Donald Trump, shot to the top of the political agenda.
Last week the US supreme court intensified that debate. The justices announced that they will hear a challenge from Republican-controlled states to Barack Obama’s executive actions to protect undocumented immigrants from deportation.
Obama’s latest program, an extension of the original deferred action, would have allowed up to five million immigrant parents, Praeli’s mom among them, to stay and work in the country indefinitely.
But the policy was put on hold after the Republican attorney general of Texas, Ken Paxton, claimed Obama had abused his authority. The supreme court justices have indicated they will issue their ruling by the end of June – incendiary timing, just before the parties head into their national conventions.
“The supreme court ruling in June confirms that immigration will be the defining issue of this campaign,” said Fernand Amandi, principal at the Latino research and polling firm Bendixen & Amandi.
But before we get to that, there’s the small question of the Democratic nomination. Praeli’s team has campaigned for Clinton for months in Nevada, Colorado and other Latino-rich states, forming networks of female volunteers and staging training sessions in Spanish on how to caucus.
Praeli sees her role as a sort of link between her community and her candidate. She strives to make sure that Hispanic people understand that unless they vote for progressive candidates – not just for president but also for Congress – then there is no hope of breaking the Republican deadlock on comprehensive immigration reform.
She also uses her skills as a former organizer with a Dreamer network, United We Dream, to channel the aspirations of her community back to Clinton. “If you have people who are directly effected by the policies you are trying to champion at the center of your campaign, then you are more likely to make the right policies.”
Early on, she got Clinton to sit down with other Dreamers in Nevada. Last month she arranged a meeting with a family with mixed immigration status – some US citizens, others on deferred action or undocumented – to illustrate to the former secretary of state how complicated an average Latino household can be.
Clinton has one major advantage over Sanders when it comes to Latinos: she is well known, largely positively so. Gallup last week released its latest favorability ratings: although Sanders is catching up, Clinton still maintains a sizable lead, with 57% favorability among Hispanic voters to his 33%.
Andiola and Vargas acknowledge that many more Latinos are familiar with the Clintons than with Sanders. But they believe they have given their candidate an edge by developing an immigration platform that is more radical and concrete than Clinton’s.
Last summer Sanders came under fire from Latino groups for suggesting immigration had suppressed American jobs and wages. Those criticisms quieted after Vargas and Andiola pioneered a new immigration policy that would allow families divided by deportations to reunite; let immigrants change their status without leaving the country; and end all federal contracts with private prison companies running the much-loathed immigration detention centers.
The question of private prisons was a campaign priority for the couple before they signed up for Bernie. As co-founders of Dream Action Coalition, they pressed the main Democratic presidential candidates to stop taking donations from private prison lobbyists.
The campaign was personal for Andiola, who has seen trauma by detention close-up: her mother and brother are both in deportation procedures. In 2013, she posted a YouTube video in which she wept moments after her house was raided and mother carted off for removal. It went viral.
The private prison issue was particularly uncomfortable for Clinton, who, as the Intercept revealed last July, has accepted large sums from lobbyists working for companies like Corrections Corporation of America and GEO Group. In October she announced she would no longer take the money.
The other weapon in Sanders’ arsenal is the passion of Latino millennials, who are flocking to the 74-year-old’s side. “We are seeing countless posts on Instagram, Snapchat, that’s incomparable to any other campaign,” Vargas said.
To capitalize on that fervor, Sanders’ office in Las Vegas – staffed entirely by bilingual Latinos – has been targeting majority-Hispanic high schools, such as Rancho, whose 3,000 students are 90% Hispanic. Many of the kids are too young to vote themselves, but Vargas said he has been amazed to see them dragging parents and older siblings to register to vote.
The emerging strength of Latino millennials was the subject a new study by the Pew Research Center, which found that of the 27 million Hispanics who are eligible to vote this November – a record – 44% were born after 1980. That’s a notably greater proportion than the black (35%), Asian (30%) and white (27%) communities.
Since the 2012 election more than 3 million Latinos with US citizenship have turned 18 and are now eligible to vote. Their concentration in key battleground states alone makes them a sleeping giant that could have a huge impact in November’s general election.
But will that sleeping giant wake up? In 2012 a record 11 million Latinos voted – overwhelmingly for Obama (71%) to the Republican challenger Mitt Romney (27%).
Yet turnout was still depressingly low. There were more eligible Hispanic voters who did not vote than those who did, with turnout at 48% compared with 64% for white and 67% for black voters.
Then along camp Trump, speaking of a wall and deporting all 11 million undocumented immigrants. Praeli thinks the billionaire’s rhetoric goes beyond anti-immigrant and into anti-Latino sentiment. She said Hispanic families are incensed.
“Everywhere I go, Trump has become a common name in Latino households. People can’t stand it. They are shocked and angry. They are saying: ‘I’m ready, give us stuff to do.’”
Analysis Donald Trump wants to deport 11 million migrants: is that even possible?
Praeli rattles off the key states that she thinks could swing elections in no small part as a result of disgust for Trump. Colorado, Nevada, Florida and Virginia are the main four, she says, with smaller pockets in Georgia and North Carolina, where the Hispanic population is growing.
The pollster Fernand Anandi goes further. “If the sleeping giant is poked and proded into action, even states like Arizona, where there’s a huge Hispanic population but is assumed to be a safe Republican state, may be in play.”
With such a lot at stake, who needs the promise of a job in the White House to motivate them? “Being a Dreamer, being undocumented, you can still have an impact in this country,” said Vargas. “So we won’t have a career at the White House, but that’s not what this campaign is about.”
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