Immigration consistently ranks as the number one issue in national surveys of Latino voters, such as surveys by Latino Decisions and Univision News. But education and the economy are not far behind. As part of our RhodyVotes '16 coverage, we talked to some Latino voters about what's driving them to the polls.
Twenty-two year old Dorian Morales is waiting for his breakfast at La Casona, a Colombian restaurant in Central Falls. As a recent college student and young working professional, Morales has a lot of student loans to pay off. He’s following the primary election with enthusiasm.
“My obvious choice for candidate would be Bernie Sanders,” said Morales. “I’ve always waited for a candidate like him, somebody who is interested in the inequality gap.”
This year across the country millennials make up nearly half of eligible Latino voters. And like Morales, many of them applaud Bernie Sanders’ commitment to free public college tuition. Morales said that will give families more choices for an education without getting into debt. He appreciates where Sanders stands on a lot of issues, including the environment. Morales doesn’t hear any of the Republican presidential candidates addressing issues that matter most to him.
“The Republicans this year, they are off the wall,” said Morales. “I don’t know if that’s Trump setting the standard and Ted Cruz trying to keep up. I don’t understand it honestly.”
And neither does Cristian Tavares. Tavares and his brothers own La Casona. He said he’s grateful the local community has embraced La Casona, helping the restaurant’s business grow.
During this election season, Tavares has been offended by Donald Trump’s characterization of immigrants as criminals. He said negative perceptions like that have plagued Central Falls for years, and he hopes the city’s thriving Latino businesses will change that. Beyond that anti-immigrant rhetoric, Tavares says he’s examining the candidates from the perspective of a small business owner.
“I’m looking for someone who is going to give us an opportunity to keep growing,” said Tavares, “because that’s the idea. Not to get stuck, but to keep growing and employ more people. In our community here, people are living off of minimum wages and working hard to move ahead."
Tavares hasn’t decided if he’ll vote for Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.
In downtown Providence, Jose Batista thinks both candidates have strong appeal.
“But I think Bernie has, probably, broader ideas that penetrate the community a little bit more deeply,” said Batista. “For example, minimum wage ($15 per hour – that’s something that would affect a lot of Latinos), Medicare for all (that’s something that would affect a lot of people in poverty, a lot of people who are Latinos), tuition-free state colleges, which is tremendous because in Rhode Island, the median age of Latinos is 26, 27.”
Latinos in Rhode Island make up 14 percent of the population, according to tabulations of the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2014 American Community Survey by Pew Research Center.
Many are young and growing in numbers, added Batista, president of the Rhode Island Latino Political Action Committee. The nonpartisan group doesn’t endorse candidates for any federal campaigns. But it promotes civic engagement and offers programs for empowering Latinas, such as its Latina Leadership Institute.
“The Latinos, we will be the majority. You know, that’s coming,” said Maria Rivera, who completed the leadership training program. “We’re gonna be the majority.”
Rivera sits at an empty office while on a break from her job at the state department of health and human services.
“I think we all are aware of what the presidential candidates are focusing on,” said Maria, “and for the Latino community it is very important for them to go out and vote, especially in the primary.”
Rivera thinks this election season has been a hard one for Latinos, because of what she believes is anti-immigration rhetoric coming from Donald Trump. “We need to stay together and make sure that he does not win this election,” she said.
To stop Trump from winning, Rivera is urging other eligible Latinos voters to register to vote. And many Latinos in Rhode Island are eligible to vote: 46 percent, according to Pew Research Center. Nationwide, efforts are underway to encourage Latino immigrants to naturalize in time for the elections. Rivera is casting her primary vote for Hillary Clinton.
“As much as I want Hillary to win, I’m also realistic with a lot of our issues,” said Rivera, “and I also see how a lot of politicians promise and promise and promise and a lot of the stuff is not done… So as a community this is something we need to stay on top of, you know, and we need to hold them accountable.”
Rivera wants to see a president who will improve public schools in across the country. Education is her number one priority as a single mother with two children. Rivera is a student herself, working on her bachelor’s degree at Roger Williams University. She said she plans to stay involved in voter registration efforts leading up to the general election.