A few weeks ago, I joined many evangelicals—a number of Hispanics among them—in New York City for “A Conversation About America's Future with Donald Trump and Ben Carson.” Trump was asked a “softball” question by a Hispanic leader: “You have often spoken of building a wall for our southern border, but how will you build a bridge to Hispanics, the fastest growing demographic in our nation?”
Trump’s answer was hardly satisfactory (more of that below). But it isn’t as if we Hispanics have a great deal of confidence in Hillary Clinton on this matter. She—and President Obama—voted for the Secure Fence Act in 2006, which would have added 700 miles of double fencing to the border.
As the 2016 Republican and Democratic conventions get underway, the pop song title “Cuándo, Cuándo, Cuándo (When, When, When)” seems to capture Hispanic sentiment about the presumptive candidates in America. While what follows is perhaps presumptive to a fault, it may offer some thoughts from a Hispanic point of view about the “contest of negatives” that is Election 2016. If white Americans are feeling tepid about the final two candidates, Hispanics are perhaps even more disenchanted, wondering when either Trump or Clinton will emerge as a leader Hispanics can entirely support.
Clinton’s Rhetoric—and Reality
Hispanic Democrats—some 60 percent of registered Hispanic voters—are asking when their candidate will respond more fully to this 55 million person and growing minority. To begin with, when will the party’s leaders follow through on their lingering promise to reform our broken immigration system? Though we often hear that immigration ranks fourth among issues (after the economy, education, and health care) for Hispanic voters, it is clearly the “gateway issue” for many Hispanics, who are calling on Clinton to deliver what Obama did not. Clinton is saying all the right things. She will create “the first ever Office of Immigrant Affairs.” She is “committed to introducing comprehensive immigration reform and a path to legitimate citizenship within the first 100 days of [her] presidency.” She will “end family detention, close private immigrant detention centers, and help more eligible people become naturalized.” Instead of advocating for building a wall, she promises to “tear down barriers” that have kept Hispanics from succeeding more fully.
Yet as I noted above, many Hispanics like me struggle with the perceived divide between Clinton’s rhetoric and her record. In addition to voting for the Secure Fence Act as recently as last year, she seemed to flaunt the fact that she voted “numerous times” for a “barrier” to block illegal immigrants coming from the south. Also, when the Central American immigrant crisis first hit, she was quick to say that deportation was in order. As Latino analyst Alfonso Aguilar notes, “Some Hispanic voters see her as opportunistic.”
In addition, some Democratic Catholics and evangelical Hispanics worry that Clinton’s abortion stance has followed party lines and diverged from her earlier, more moderate position. The Clintons’ abortion mantra has been that it should be “safe, legal, and rare,” but recently Hillary has dropped the “R-word” when she speaks about the topic. She has also advocated for ending the pro-life Hyde Amendment, first enacted in 1976 and passed in some form ever since, which prevents taxpayer funding of elective abortions through federal programs like Medicaid. Perhaps most troubling was her recent statement at a Women in the World Conference where she suggested that in order to expand worldwide access to abortion, “deep-seated cultural codes, religious beliefs, and structural biases have to be changed.”
For some Hispanics, Clinton has also been sullied by her close association with the Obama presidency. Many Latinos resent Obama for deporting 3 million people and dividing hundreds of thousands of families. Many feel she should have spoken up earlier if she was truly opposed to these actions when she served as Secretary of State. Obama’s 2008 election promise to reform immigration became hollow by 2012 and is now seen by some as evidence that the vow was nothing more than a vote-mongering ploy by Clinton’s party.
I have spoken to a number of Clinton’s Hispanic supporters, “Clintonistas,” who believe she will crush Trump in November, fueled by a record Hispanic voter turnout. They point to her 2-1 margin with Latinos over Obama in the 2008 primary and the latest party platform, which calls for a path to citizenship “for law-abiding families who are here,” the end of immigration raids against children and families, due process for “those fleeing violence in Central America,” and to rescind statutory bans on immigrants who modify their status in the country. They also note that Clinton will benefit from the “nostalgia effect” from some Hispanics who fondly remember Bill Clinton’s years in the Oval Office as prosperous ones for them. In addition, Hillary has some long-standing ties to Hispanic leaders, going back to the 1970s and her connection to well-respected union leader Franklin Garcia, about whom she wrote in her 2003 memoir. The depth of her support among Hispanics was solidified when the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce endorsed her (and now-defunct candidate John Kasich) noting “Clinton has always stood by our community.”
Perhaps Clinton is buoyed most with Hispanics because her challenger, Donald Trump, has failed so disastrously at connecting with them. Sure that no one could trump (sorry) Mitt Romney’s wooden failure with Latinos, we have watched Trump sink to an unimaginable nadir with our community. His string of offenses against Latinos began with his presidential announcement over a year ago, when he mentioned Mexicans in the same phrase as rapists and drug dealers. It continued with a slur against Jeb Bush, saying he “has to like illegals” because he has a Mexican wife. Then came Trump’s attack against District Judge Gonzalo Curiel, who Trump called a “Mexican,” and “a hater,” saying he could not be an objective judge (Curiel was born in Indiana, and his Mexican father arrived in the US before Trump’s Scottish-born mother) of a lawsuit involving Trump’s real estate business education venture. For the first time in months, Republican leaders were unified—in their condemnation of Trump’s “racist” remarks.
Then there’s The Wall. It will be massive, impenetrable, 1,954 miles long, paid for by the Mexican government, and “beautiful.” From its first mention, Trump’s wall has been the protagonist of his discursive narrative; it is one of the “core principles” of his immigration reform plan; it finds its way into nearly every stump speech, and it has become the iconic trope of unity for his followers and growing separation from Hispanics.
Trump’s remarks have led many Latinos to coalesce against him, some joining movements like “¡Nunca Trump!” (“Never Trump!”) or “Stand Up to Hate,” others claiming they would simply rather not vote at all. For example, staunch conservative Rosario Marin, the former US Treasurer under George W. Bush, says that for the first time in more than two decades, she is not campaigning for the Republican presidential nominee. “He’s insulted me, the people I love, the community I represent,” she said. "He’s for everything I’ve fought against. There is no way I could ask anybody to vote for him.”
Returning to that question asked of Trump at the NYC conversation, Trump immediately, though inexplicably, fastened on the wall, not the bridge, extolling the limitless virtues of the wall and how it will be good for Mexico and America. This gaffe further convinced many Hispanics present that Trump is either unprepared to serve as president (surely he would have developed some standard response for this kind of question) or simply uncaring about the Hispanic community.
Conservative Latinos, like other conservative Americans, are being urged to “consider the alternative,” to “reflect upon the upcoming Supreme Court nominations,” and support Trump as some kind of lesser of two evils. Yet, many of us are hesitant as we try to picture ourselves in a voting booth, casting our support for a man who has done little to recover the considerable ground he has lost with Hispanics.
Trump is not without Hispanic supporters. There is a “Latinos/Hispanics for Donald Trump” Facebook page with more than 25,000 likes, and some polls reveal he has narrowed the gap with Clinton among Hispanics. There is also a “Hispanic Patriots for Trump” group as well as the National Diversity Coalition for Trump, but this group doesn’t include any of the major Hispanic surrogates we saw for Romney, McCain, or Bush. State Rep. Alonzo Baldonado, who represents a district south of Albuquerque, said he would support Trump, and Trump will need more prominent supporters to step forward if he is to reach the 30 percent threshold with Hispanics that many experts say he will need to win in November.
Part of the American Dream
Hispanics’ hesitancy regarding Clinton and Trump is illustrated by two infamous fast-food related incidents: Clinton’s at Chipotle when she launched her campaign, Trump’s at the Trump Tower Grill on Cinco de Mayo. For Clinton, she was sunglassed and insular as she grabbed her side of guacamole and left, but tried to use the visit to show she is not the Armani-clad, Wall Street–financed parody some would make of her. But Hispanics are relational and have heard that the former first lady can often be dismissive of staff. The fact that she did not stop to speak to a single patron or worker is not lost on the Hispanic electorate who wants to get to know her better but has found her reluctant to reveal her more human qualities, preferring instead to deliver carefully rehearsed platitudes. Trump’s tone-deaf Taco Bowl tweet testified to his disconnectedness from the Hispanic community. Interestingly, Trump is often praised for his treatment of staff, and he claims many Hispanics to be among them. Yet, Trump too is enigmatic for Hispanics, some of whom like his bold style and anti-establishment air, but are jarred by the lack of humility and sensitivity that he often displays.
Hispanics have seen some heartening gains over the last few years, with a decline in the poverty rate, an increase in annual income, and college attendance rates at a higher percentage than whites. Yet, college graduation rates lag, 70 percent of all Hispanic infants today are born to mothers with a high school degree or less, and Hispanics are over-represented among the poor in America. We need a president who will see us as a rich part of the tapestry that is America.
Former New Mexico governor Bill Richardson’s advice to candidates in 2008 rings true today: “They need to start talking to Hispanics” he said, “not like an ethnic minority, but as mainstream Americans who are part of the American Dream.” Perhaps there is still time for our remaining candidates to connect with us. If it does not happen soon, we will continue to ask: Cuándo?
Carlos Campo is president of Ashland University and leads the educational arm of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference.