FEATURE: El Voto Latino

By on July 12, 2016

Can Latinos grow their voice in a critical election year?

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JACKSON HOLE, WY – In 2015, a community assessment survey from the Latino Resource Center found that the two most critical issues facing Teton County Latinos were first, “documentation and citizenship,” and second, “housing.” In 2016, those issues have vaulted to the forefront of national and local elections.

As if Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s xenophobic immigration proposals weren’t concerning enough for Latino communities, the Supreme Court recently stalemated in a decision on President Barack Obama’s 2014 executive order that would have made more than four million undocumented immigrants eligible for work permits while deferring action on their deportation.

The 4-4 tie in the SCOTUS was possible in part because Republican senators still refuse to vote on Obama’s nominee to the federal bench, Merrick Garland. The deadlock upholds a decision from a lower appeals court that determined the president had likely gone beyond his executive authority.

Jorge Moreno, a 34-year-old Latino community leader and Mexican immigrant who first moved to Jackson Hole in 1996, offered a forward-looking view on a discouraging outcome.

“This decision from the Supreme Court is hurting everybody, but there is going to have to come a time when a solution is going to be made,” Moreno said. “For how long are we going to have all these people who right now do not have the documentation to become legal? They’re your housekeepers. They’re your dishwashers. They’re your lawnmowers. They’re your neighbors.”

Moreno became a case manager for the Latino Resource Center in 2013, and he is still involved with the organization after its recent merger with El Puente and the Community Resource Center into a single nonprofit, One22.

Last year Moreno was hit with a 20 percent rent increase (which he helped negotiate down from 40 percent for his apartment and many others) at Blair Place Apartments where he lives with his wife, two sons, and six-month-old daughter. Another 20 percent bump is coming next year. It could be the breaking point for Moreno and his family.

“I might not be here for long,” Moreno said. “There’s a lot of people that are not going to be here for long, and when that happens things are going to get tighter. Businesses are going to keep closing. It comes to a point where too much is too much, and either we do something or we don’t.”

Like many Latinos in Teton County, Moreno will not be eligible to vote in this year’s elections despite his longtime community involvement. Though they have the highest stakes, it is unclear just how many voting-age Latinos will be able to cast their votes.

Anti-immigration extremism

At the national level, Trump has proposed the deportation of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. He has singled out Mexican immigrants as “rapists” and “killers” along the way.

Even when referring to Latinos who are naturalized or second-generation U.S. citizens, Trump has shown that his racism knows no borders. This spring he accused U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel of bias in a fraud lawsuit against Trump University. “He’s a Mexican. We’re building a wall between here and Mexico,” Trump said of Curiel, who was born in the state of Indiana to naturalized Mexican immigrants.

Despite this ongoing vitriol from the presidential candidate, Moreno’s concerns stem from his sense of patriotism and family rather than a fear of Trump actually following through on his threats.

“I’m not worried about what he’s going to do to Latinos—whether he’s going to kick us out or not,” Moreno said. “I don’t think he’s going to be able to do that anyways. What I’m worried about is what he’s going to do to this nation. My kids, they’re U.S. citizens. I’m worried about their future.”

Before she was forced out of Jackson Hole last year because of the housing crisis, Sonia Capece, the former executive director of the Latino Resource Center, estimated that undocumented immigrants make up more than 50 percent of the Latino population in Teton County.

U.S. Census data from 2014 shows that Latinos account for 15 percent of the overall population in Teton County, but those who work with the community estimate the figure to be more like 25 to 30 percent. Eighty-two percent of the county’s Latino population is Mexican.

Trump has toned down his rhetoric on some days, but even a watered down version of his immigration plan would be harmful to the entire Jackson Hole community. It would separate more Latino families and place a profound strain on Teton County’s existing worker shortage.

A reasonable representative from Wyoming?

Should the Cowboy State remain “red” in the presidential election, the vacant U.S. House of Representatives seat left by Republican Cynthia Lummis may be the best opportunity for Wyoming voters to send a more sensible voice on immigration to Washington, D.C.

“Immigration is a federal-level set of laws, so there is no state immigration law,” said Rosie Read, an immigration lawyer in Jackson. “Those who we’re electing to the federal government are going to be directly impacting what immigration policy looks like and what kind of changes we see exactly.”

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If the GOP continues its four-decade hold on Wyoming’s lone U.S. House seat, the new representative will likely be more focused on enforcing existing immigration laws than changing them to provide a path to citizenship. According to a June 29 article from the Associated Press, all nine Wyoming Republican candidates running for Congress are currently supporting Trump’s candidacy, even if a few appear more reluctant than others.

Liz Cheney, the most prominent candidate for Wyoming’s U.S. House seat, explained her Trump support to the Associated Press. “We’ve got to unite behind Trump. No matter who our candidate is there will be disagreements on certain areas of policy. I don’t agree with any Republican, probably, on everything,” she said.

On her website, Cheney’s position on immigration states: “Our national security requires that we secure our borders and end President Obama’s policies granting amnesty to illegal immigrants.”

Meanwhile, the campaign website of Teton County resident and current Wyoming State Senator Leland Christensen declares, “Illegal immigration is just that: illegal. It’s a threat to our national security and economy.”

“The typical Republican line is that everyone needs to get in line, but a line virtually does not exist for some people,” countered Read. “The laws we have on the books are pretty draconian in terms of punishment for entering the United States illegally and remaining here for any period of time over six months without a visa.”

While Christensen seems more hesitant to provide a full-throated endorsement of Trump, he explained to the Associated Press that he is hopeful for a transformation, noting that “Ronald Reagan was mocked as just an actor” early in his political career.

Unlike Trump, though, Reagan was not openly criticized within his own party for overtly racist comments and proposals. In fact, in a debate during his successful 1984 presidential campaign, Reagan professed, “I believe in the idea of amnesty for those who have put down roots and who have lived here, even though some time back they may have entered illegally.”

It is a Democrat, not a Republican, who is striking a similar tone in Wyoming’s U.S. House race.

“If you have lived and worked here, and contributed to American communities, you should do so as an American citizen,” said 33-year-old Democratic candidate Ryan Greene, a first-time politician, and operations director at Greene’s Energy Services in Rock Springs. “We need to establish a modern and practical path to citizenship.”

In May, Greene received a sudden challenge in the Democratic primary from 77-year-old Charlie Hardy, a former Catholic priest and Spanish-speaking social activist out of Cheyenne who mounted an unsuccessful campaign for Wyoming Republican Mike Enzi’s U.S. Senate seat in 2014.

“We’re tearing families apart with our current immigration laws,” argued Hardy. “It’s not just an issue for politicians, it’s an issue for every voter to become informed about.”

While both Greene and Hardy appear more sympathetic to the plight of undocumented immigrants than their Republican counterparts, it is not yet clear what specific steps they might suggest to reform current federal immigration laws.

Whether Wyoming sends a Republican or Democrat to Congress, Moreno believes the path to citizenship starts with action from the new representative, even if it is a pace backward in a long journey forward.

“There’s not going to be a huge solution where everybody is going to become citizens, but the reality is that we have to do something about it,” argued Moreno. “We have to take the first step. Whoever is brave enough to do that is going to have a lot on their side.”

A big vote for housing

On June 6, Moreno joined about 100 other community members in the Shelter JH housing march, an event he co-organized with One22 executive director Mary Erickson. With equal representation from local Latinos and whites, participants marched with signs from Jackson’s town square to town hall, where they expressed their housing concerns during a town council meeting.

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“It’s pretty powerful when average citizens come before an elected official and speak from the heart,” said town councilman Jim Stanford, who is running for re-election this November. “I think all of us have been moved by hearing these stories.”

Looking to sustain momentum from the Shelter JH event, Moreno is working with One22 to create a network of Latino movers and shakers from various sections of Jackson Hole, whether it is in a certain neighborhood or a specific apartment complex.

Called “mobilizers,” these leaders will be trained by One22 to go to Latino households and communicate the importance of attending meetings, providing feedback and, if possible, registering to vote on civic issues like affordable housing.

“We need representation,” Moreno said. “We are 25 to 30 percent of the school district, but there’s not a single Latino on the school board. We can do that. We can create this network and start encouraging people to participate and get more involved.”

With the Nov. 8 elections for mayor, two county commissioners and two town council seats likely to focus on housing solutions, Moreno emphasized that even a small number of new Latino voters could have a big impact. He cited the 2014 election day victory of Jackson Mayor Sara Flitner by just 40 votes.

“If we can have 40 Latinos register and vote, we show that that makes a difference,” Moreno said.

A ballot question introduced by the current town council and county commissioners could also drastically affect public funding for not only affordable housing, but also transportation for those who work in the county but have been priced out. If passed, the additional penny of general sales tax would—if town and county officials keep their word—provide a steady source of funding for housing and transportation.

“It’s come down to a difference of approaches,” noted Stanford. “We can’t make significant progress without funding, and so the election coming up in November for the general penny of sales tax is crucial for anyone concerned about increasing our supply of affordable housing.”

For the most part, the positions on the 6 percent sales tax have split along partisan lines, with more liberal officeholders supporting the general penny of sales tax, and those leaning conservative opposing it.

Judd Grossman, co-founder and former co-publisher of The Planet, jumped in the race for town council to oppose the general penny of sales tax and instead encourage incentives for the private sector to build housing.

“The town and county are selling us a bill of goods,” Grossman stated in an online comment to a May 25 Planet article on the ballot question. “The general excise tax increase is a huge money grab for government to spend on whatever it wants. The hundreds of millions it will tax and spend will have a negligible effect on our housing and traffic problems.”

On the other side of the divide, Luther Propst, chairman of the Teton County Democratic Party, quipped, “The [Republicans’] platform is that they support housing, but they support market-based solutions to the housing crisis. The market is comfortable with people commuting from Idaho Falls.”

As the debate over the most effective housing proposals rages on, Moreno takes solace in the fact that officeholders and candidates are discussing solutions in the first place. “At least they are working on something and they are showing their interest,” he said. “For some of us it’s going to be too late, but at least it gives us something to look forward to.”

A Latino wave at the ballot box?

With so much on the line with immigration at the national level and affordable housing, locally, the potential for Latino turnout in the 2016 Teton County general election is both a question of engagement and eligibility.

Trump’s campaign of xenophobia is coinciding with a significant increase of eligible Latino voters across the country. According to the Pew Research Center, a record 27.3 million Latinos are expected to be eligible to vote in the 2016 election, comprising 11.3 percent of all eligible voters in the U.S. This growing Latino share of the electorate is being driven primarily by a wave of U.S.-born Latinos turning the voting age of 18.

Though data is lacking for Wyoming, states as disparate as California, Texas, and Georgia have all seen surges in Latino voter registration this election season. In the media, each increase has been anecdotally associated with Trump’s rise, but the ultimate test will be whether Latinos actually vote in significantly higher numbers than in previous presidential elections.

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U.S. Census data shows that only 48 percent of eligible Latinos cast a vote nationwide in 2012, compared to 64.1 percent of eligible white voters. In Wyoming, Latino turnout was even lower, with only 29.6 percent of eligible voters participating.

“It was a disappointing turnout for a community highly affected by worker’s rights, safety issues and wage inequality,” said Ana Cuprill, chairwoman of the Wyoming Democratic Party. “As [Wyoming] Democrats, with some of the issues we deal with, we’re generally in the minority anyway and it’s difficult being a minority amongst minorities.”

Cuprill noted that her election in 2015 as the first Latina to head up a U.S. state’s Democratic Party was a step in the right direction for changing that voter dynamic.

“Having a Latina be the face of the state party I think has really made a big difference in the way that people see the party, with more inclusion and opportunities for some of those [Latino] voices,” she said

While Cuprill says the Wyoming Democratic Party has not yet developed voter registration efforts that specifically target Latinos, she emphasizes that the party is driving turnout by focusing on issues like healthcare and education, which affect minority communities more than others.

Locally, Bonnie Koeln has again volunteered for the Teton County Democrats to mail voter registration information to this year’s graduates—including Latinos—of Jackson Hole High School.

Outside of those limited efforts, Moreno has taken voter registration into his own hands, personally guiding about six local Latinos through the process this year. Though he is unsure exactly how many second-generation Latinos will be eligible, Moreno thinks that this election is the first opportunity to register a significant number in Teton County.

“I believe that this first wave of new voters are going to make a difference,” Moreno said. “They have grown in this community. They know the issues. They know the problems. They see the desperation of their parents, and their aunts, and their uncles.”

The U.S. Census recorded 179 Latinos in Teton County who were 15 to 17 years old in 2014. That group has now either reached or is approaching voting age. The figure is nearly five times the amount of Teton County Latinos reported to be 18 to 19 years old in 2014, suggesting a potential swell in eligible voters, if not in this election, then in coming elections.

Through One22’s mobilizer program, Moreno also wants to encourage Latinos who cannot vote to still share registration information with eligible voters in order to give their community a greater voice.

“The first generation, we don’t feel like we really have that empowerment,” explained Moreno. “Some people feel like it’s not even worth talking about because we aren’t eligible to vote, but it is. It is important because that way we leave something for our kids to look up to.”

The Teton County Clerk’s office does not record the race of voters, but even a modest registration bump could represent a big increase in Latino participation from past elections. Leading up to the 2014 general election, Capece told the Jackson Hole News&Guide that another local organization had counted only about 150 Latino-sounding names on the voter registration list.

Chief deputy clerk Melissa Shinkle has not yet seen a noticeable increase in Latino registrations for Teton County’s local primary or general election, but she said that several Latinos registered in the lead-in to the Wyoming Democratic caucus on April 9. While she characterized the caucus turnout as “more than normal” for Latinos, Shinkle could not provide an exact number or a historical comparison.

A nonpartisan push for Latino voters

Regardless of race or political party, the voting share for those under 35 years old in Teton County has been about half that of the rest of Wyoming in the past three general elections. That low voting share was particularly pronounced in the 2014 elections, when those under 35 accounted for less than 4 percent of all votes in the county.

To address this disengagement among millennials, the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance has launched a campaign to register 450 young voters and 50 Latino adults in Teton County this election year.

Maggie Shipley, the Alliance’s voter engagement fellow, explained that the nonprofit has worked with Moreno and Latino Resource Center founder Carmina Oaks to set reasonable registration targets.

“We realize that not that many Latinos will be able to vote this year, but we know a lot of the 15- to 17-year-old range will be ready to vote by the next election, so we’re trying to start the conversation now and build up for the next time,” Shipley said.

While the Alliance’s general youth outreach will focus on collecting commit-to-vote cards that will be used by the organization to mobilize turnout closer to the election, the Latino aspect of the campaign will revolve around the development of ambassadors within the Latino community.

Similar to One22’s development of mobilizers, the Alliance’s ambassadors will be trained on the voting process and civic issues, and will then discuss these subjects one-on-one with eligible Latinos. Each ambassador will help compile a list of eligible Latino voters in Teton County and work with a handful of people on the list.

“With young people, we knew we could have these big parties and have someone from TGR come talk and it would attract a big crowd. But with the Latino community, we thought that it needed to be a little more personal to convince them that their vote counted,” explained Shipley.

An important role of each ambassador will be informing eligible Latinos that they can register and vote on the same day—either Nov. 8 for the general election, or throughout the absentee voting period from Sept. 23 to Nov. 7. The same goes for the local primary, with the absentee voting period running from July 1 to Aug. 15, and primary election day on Aug. 16.

Keeping in mind that most eligible voters are second-generation Latinos whose parents cannot vote, the Alliance came up with the slogan, “Yo voto por mi familia” (“I vote for my family”), which is printed on stickers given to Latinos who commit to registering and voting.

The Alliance’s Latino ambassador program is still in its early stages, but it has already recruited 19-year-old Jackson Hole High School graduate Kely Mares as its first ambassador.

“I got involved in voting and registration because I would like for more Latinos to have a voice,” Mares said. “I also don’t want Donald Trump as a president. He is an ignorant person who clearly doesn’t know anything about Mexicans.”

The oldest of three siblings, Mares will be the first in her family to vote. Her parents have lived in Jackson Hole for 25 years but are not eligible to vote. After living in the same apartment for five years, the Mares family became another victim of the housing crisis last month.

“We got a notice on our door saying we had to be out in less than a month,” Mares recounted. “I called the landlord to ask him if he could give us more time and his answer was, ‘I am not going to stop my construction just because you guys can’t find a place to live.’”

Though her family was able to find a home rental in Thayne, Mares now commutes an hour each way to work. She is hopeful that they will able to move back to Jackson soon. “Our life is in Jackson; we have jobs and family there,” she said.

With Mares’ generation coming of age at a crucial time for the local Latino community, this year could mark the first of its many gains at county polls. Meanwhile, Moreno hopes that he and his family will be around to witness the full potential of Latino voter participation, but his aim is largely selfless.

“I’m still going to try to do as much as I can on my side, even though I might not see the benefit of it,” Moreno said. “At least we’re working on something for the future of our community.” PJH

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