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The fight for Nevada's Latino vote

An army of new voters and Dreamers hits the streets every day in this battleground state to register Hispanics, who could swing the vote.
8 Ago 2016 – 02:26 PM EDT
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Voters check in during the Nevada primary. Crédito: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Las Vegas, Nevada - For the last six months, 35-year-old Mishael Tarin has turned his car into a campaign bus. Every Saturday he brings young volunteers to Hispanic neighborhoods east and north of Las Vegas to register as many eligible voters as possible before November.

In front of supermarkets like Cardenas, Marianas and Albertsons, and the Department of Motor Vehicles, an army of about 30 people between the ages of 17 and 30 walk around with forms in hand, asking people if they've registered to vote.

"We're definitely not going to Whole Foods," said Tarin, the Las Vegas coordinator for the Everybody Votes project. The initiative is part of Mi Familia Vota (MFV), a non-partisan organization working with the Latino community across the United States to promote civic participation.

Since Nevada is a swing state, the Hispanic vote here can tip the scales in favor of Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump. It's one of several swing states with a growing Latino electorate, including Florida and Colorado, that could prove critical in November.

About 28% of Nevada's population is Latino and there are some 328,000 Latinos eligible to vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. Although a large majority are registered as Democrats (58%), almost a quarter are independents.

Tarin is a legal resident, but won't get his citizenship in time for the November elections. Half of his volunteers are Dreamers who have deferred action, known as DACA, and even some undocumented immigrants who can't vote, either.

Their motivation is "to open the eyes of those who have the right to exercise that right," said volunteer Ana Karen Nava, 27, a Mexican-born Dreamer and the mother of a 3-year-old. The outcome of the election will determine if the MFV volunteers will be able to become citizens, she added.

During the campaign, the volunteers have come across just about everything: pro-Trump Latinos, residents who don't want to become citizens because they have a decades-old traffic violation, neighbors suspicious of why MFV volunteers don't say who they'll vote for, citizens who say they are affiliated with the conservative Tea Party or the Communist Party, and even Christians who claim that the Bible says there's no need to register.

"People are very misinformed. They think that their vote won't make a difference, or they don't vote because of apathy or laziness," said Arturo Gonzalez, a MFV project manager and the son of Salvadoran parents who won refugee status after escaping that country’s civil war.

"Other people are afraid to register," he said, referring to Latinos who worry about exposing themselves to legal scrutiny for one reason or another, such as traffic citations or bad debt.

His group has learned to be strategic when looking for future voters. On Tuesdays he goes to chain stores offering discounts on purchases of meat and chicken, and he visits libraries on Wednesdays which is the day when most free classes are offered in Spanish.

During First Friday, the monthly art festival that takes place each month in the city center, a table is set up with registration forms, just as they do at the exit of citizenship ceremonies. Aware that $1 beer is a big draw at Las Vegas 51s minor league baseball games they often hang out at the stadium.

"We have several partnerships to promote the campaign on radio stations such as La Tricolor and Super Estrella, as well as local Hispanic TV channels," says Areli Chaparro, a 25-year-old, Mexican-born volunteer whose parents were beneficiaries of an amnesty for undocumented immigrants in 1986.

"If necessary, on election day we’ll give them a ride to the polling stations," she adds.

At their office the group tracks their progress on a chart that shows 3,983 new voters registered and a goal 10,000 by Oct. 8.

As they do six days a week, on one recent Saturday volunteers spent five hours under a burning sun in Las Vegas, dubbed "Sin City" and known for the opulence of its hotels and casinos and a frenetic nightlife. It’s here where a large part of the Latino labor force is employed.

Unionized workers

"Almost 60% of our 57,000 members are Latinos, mostly Mexicans and Salvadorans," explains Geoconda Argüello, secretary and treasurer of the Culinary Workers Union, representing casino and hotels workers. Two weeks ago the union endorsed Hillary Clinton after refraining from doing so in the primaries. The union also conducted voter registration campaigns (mainly in casinos) and to date have managed to enroll 1,800 people for next November.

"We have always been very active in the political terrain and we could not stay silent with a candidate like Mr. Trump," said Argüello.

She described with indignation how even though most of the 520 workers for Trump Tower voted in an internal election to join the union -- a vote that was certified by the National Labor Relations Board -- "they have not been able to negotiate their contracts because he has refused to sit down with them. "

"Trump doesn’t respond to letters, calls, rallies or delegations, but instead has begun a campaign of intimidation and has suspended workers,” Argüello says. Unionized workers receive a minimum wage of $9 an hour, right to social security and pensions, while Trump’s employees and employees of millionaire Sheldon Adelson’s Station Casinos chain receive $6 hour for the same work.”

Hispanic candidates

Nevada has faced anti-immigrant rhetoric before, such as during Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle’s campaign in 2010. Angle famously lost to Democrat Harry Reid thanks to the incumbent senator winning the support of the Hispanic community. But never before has a candidate awakened Latinos like Trump has.

"Latinos who are frustrated by the issue of immigration reform know that it is a struggle that will not be solved immediately, but they need someone who will at least talk about it," says Andres Ramirez, a political consultant and director of the Ramirez group, a public relations and advocacy firm that works with the Hispanic community. "Those who fear more of their family members will be deported are very clear about what Trump has said about immigrants. They know they can’t afford not to vote.”

According to Ramirez, Latinos do vote en masse. The problem, he says, is low rates of voter registration. According to Census figures, 86% of Latinos in Nevada who were registered to vote went to the polls in the 2012 election.

In Nevada, more and more Hispanics are running for office, appealing to the immigrant community, such as Nevada state assemblymen Nelson Araujo, the son of Salvadoran parents, and Edgar Flores, the son of Mexicans, who were both elected in 2014; as well as Ruben Kihuen, born in Guadalajara, Mexico, who was elected to the Senate in Nevada in 2010 and is now running for a House seat.

Democratic Senate candidate Catherine Cortez Masto, who was elected state attorney general for two consecutive terms, is running to fill the seat vacated by Reid and could become the first Latina in the United States Senate.

"If citizens or young people who were born here do not participate, we are not giving voice to people like our parents who are perhaps still waiting for DAPA to resolve their situation," Kihuen told Univision.

For Jesus Marquez, a Republican analyst, Trump still has the opportunity to capitalize among Hispanics concerned about the economy. But, Marquez says, he is going to have to “invest more money and start talking about his ideas for Latinos.”

The Democratic Party machine has been up and running for more than a year. And Trump’s state director is young conservative Hispanic Charles Muñoz, 27, who has only three people in his office, Marquez says.

"There are still 100,000 Hispanics who are not registered to vote and many are non-partisan,” he adds. “We know that the Democrats have an army of people on the streets. But with all the other voters that Trump attracts, he only needs about 30% of the Latino vote in Nevada to win.”