Biden says he would reverse Trump immigration policy in push to reach Florida Hispanics

©Miami Herald

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MIAMI — Joe Biden would grant permanent legal status to Venezuelan exiles in the U.S. if he becomes president, end the federal government’s deputizing of local law enforcement on immigration matters, and, on his first day in office, file an immigration bill creating a “legal road map” for roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants to obtain legal status, advisers to the presumptive Democratic nominee said Tuesday.

Biden’s presidential campaign released staples of his plan for Latinos during a call with reporters, laying out the former vice president’s intent to reverse much of President Donald Trump’s immigration policies and take steps to provide improved healthcare and education to Hispanic communities.

The Biden campaign released its platform — which notably did not mention Cuba — just weeks before mail voting for the Nov. 3 election begins in Florida. His advisers, who spoke to reporters on the condition that they not be named, said the campaign is pushing out its message for Biden and against Trump in battleground states including Florida through millions of dollars in political ads and virtual events intended to appeal to the various Latino communities around the country.

“In all battleground states, we’re really focused on turning out and engaging the Latino vote,” one senior adviser said, adding that the campaign is building teams in those battleground states that include “tremendous Latino leadership and talent.”

The success of Biden’s campaign could hinge on his ability to win over skeptical, swing-state Hispanic voters.

While the former vice president is leading Trump nationally among Latinos, he needs to win enough of the vote share in November battlegrounds such as Florida and Arizona to counteract Trump’s dominance with white voters and flip those states blue.

Biden’s Latino platform includes a number of policies intended to change how the U.S. immigration system works at the Southwest border. But what works in Arizona doesn’t necessarily work in Florida, a state where immigration patterns are unique and hundreds of thousands of Latino voters are natural-born U.S. citizens. Of Florida’s 14 million voters, about 17% are Hispanic. More than 900,000 are Democrats, close to 600,000 are Republican, and more than 800,000 are registered without party affiliation.

Communities have settled in Florida from all over the Western Hemisphere. Conservative Cuban Americans and left-leaning Puerto Ricans form by far the largest Hispanic voting blocs in the state. But the makeup of the Hispanic vote continues to change. A notable example: Miami’s Little Havana is slowly becoming a Central American community, with an influx of Nicaraguans followed by Hondurans and Guatemalans.

The campaign is making sure that the information and ads aimed at Florida are “speaking to the issues in the communities, the Latino communities that we know make up Florida, whether it’s the Venezuelan community, the Cuban community, or Puerto Rican community,” a senior adviser said.

Cubans, who until the end of Barack Obama’s presidency were guaranteed a fast track to citizenship if they set foot on U.S. soil, have largely voted Republican for 60 years, dating back to when Democratic President John F. Kennedy’s administration attempted the ill-fated CIA-backed Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba. Much of Miami’s political class either fled Fidel Castro’s communist Cuba as children, or were born to parents who’d fled Cuba as children.

But Trump received lackluster support from Miami’s Cubans in 2016. He won Florida by 112,000 votes, but he had to climb out of a nearly 300,000-vote hole in Miami-Dade County, where Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton beat him nearly 2-to-1.

Four years later, the outlook has changed. Polls have found that Trump has won over more of Florida’s Cuban voters, who tend to vote in high numbers. He passed an executive order reversing Obama’s rapprochement and another allowing lawsuits against U.S. companies that do business with property stolen by Castro’s socialist Cuban government. Trump visited Little Havana in his first weeks as president to sign the order ending Obama’s normalization with Cuba, and returned to Miami last year to declare socialism all-but dead under his watch after backing Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó.

Trump’s campaign has run a TV commercial featuring Goya Foods in an attempt to capitalize on a push by progressives to boycott the brand over its CEO’s support for the president, and has fine-tuned his relentless anti-socialism messaging by arguing that Biden is too weak to stand up to progressives — the target of a new dictator-themed digital ad released this week.

“Cuban voters are the rare demographic (anywhere in the country) with which Donald Trump has improved since 2016,” Carlos Odio, co-founder of Latino voter analytics firm EquisLab, wrote last month on Medium.

Odio believes if Trump had garnered the same support among Cuban voters in 2016 that an EquisLabs poll from November showed he had a year out from the coming election, he would have received an extra 90,000 votes in Florida. But Odio also believes that Biden can — and must — improve his standing with Cuban Americans, particularly newer arrivals and younger generations born in Florida.

Odio said Biden doesn’t need to win the Cuban vote, but cautioned that “tens of thousands of votes are on the line in a state always decided by narrow margins.”

Biden’s proposed Latino agenda is largely aimed at domestic policy and does not mention Cuba. But it promises to review “every Temporary Protected Status decision made by the Trump administration,” including whether the federal relief program deferring immigration enforcement should be extended to Venezuelans fleeing the regime of leader Nicolás Maduro, many of whom have settled in South Florida.

Leopoldo Martinez, a former Venezuelan congressman and board member of the progressive U.S. organization Latino Victory, said it’s encouraging to see that Biden’s plan makes a commitment to extending TPS to Venezuelans, many of whom are stuck in an asylum limbo and have faced deportation under the Trump administration.

He said Biden’s platform could help Venezuelans living in states like Florida, who are fleeing inequality and poverty under Maduro to seek better living conditions.

“For those of us who come from that experience, it’s not just TPS, but also seeing the issue of unequal opportunities, of social mobility and inclusion of our Latino families as part of American society is very encouraging and very refreshing,” Martinez said.

Though the pandemic has made campaigning difficult, Biden — who stopped in Little Havana last year for a campaign event— has recently amped up efforts to reach Hispanic voters, running Spanish-language ads and bringing on new Hispanic advisers. On Tuesday, Biden’s advisers did not address his position on Cuba, but said the former vice president intends to focus on economic mobility, home ownership and healthcare for Hispanics.

“Latino people continue to have a disproportionately high uninsured rate in this country. It’s a community where it’s especially important that we not only defend their Affordable Care Act [insurance plans] but also build on it by providing more public options and insurance subsidies so more people can afford their premiums,” a senior adviser said.

The platform released Tuesday by Biden’s campaign reflects its efforts to talk to Hispanic voters about more than immigration. Pledges include a promise to build a new Smithsonian museum dedicated to Latino contributions to history, and efforts to protect blue-collar Hispanic workers exposed to risky situations during the coronavirus pandemic.

But Biden’s campaign has been questioned and criticized on several points during its efforts to win over Hispanic voters in Florida.

Miami Democrats are warning Biden against tapping California Congresswoman Karen Bass as his running mate due to her history of visits to Cuba and her flattering words for Castro upon his death in 2016. And they’re worried that Trump could hurt Biden with the same relentless socialism-themed messaging that hurt Democratic candidate for governor Andrew Gillum two years ago.

Elsewhere, in Central Florida, dozens of campaign field staffers wrote a letter to the campaign last month questioning its plan to relocate Spanish-speaking campaign organizers in a part of the state where more than 1 million Puerto Ricans have established homes, and many are independent voters.

“The [Coordinated Campaign of Florida] is suppressing the Hispanic vote by removing Spanish-speaking organizers from Central Florida without explanation, which fails to confront a system of white-dominated politics we are supposed to be working against as organizers of a progressive party,” stated the letter, signed by more than 90 field staffers.

During the press call, senior Biden advisers suggested they are addressing some of the concerns from Florida field staffers, including their claim that the campaign did not have phone banking scripts translated into Spanish, Portuguese or Haitian Creole.

“As part of this agenda rollout, we are also providing kind of direct communication with our organizers in the form of scripts … that they can use in the Latino community that’s translated in both English and Spanish,” one adviser said.

Many Puerto Ricans — U.S. citizens from a territory where politicking is built around the island’s political status — choose to register in Florida without party affiliation. Strategists believe Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and U.S. Sen. Rick Scott narrowly won their races in part because they performed better among Puerto Ricans than Trump did in 2016.

Trump’s support among Puerto Ricans dropped to low levels following his response to Hurricane Maria, a Category 5 storm that pounded the Caribbean island in 2017. A Florida International University poll conducted the summer after the storm found that three in four Puerto Rican voters in Florida had an unfavorable opinion of Trump.

Biden won’t automatically inherit voters who dislike Trump. And though his plan mentioned Puerto Rico and Hurricane Maria, it did not include proposals to address Puerto Rico’s lingering fiscal crisis, one reason that thousands of Puerto Ricans have relocated to Florida.

His advisers said Tuesday that Biden hopes to win voters by condemning Trump’s immigration policies, such as Trump’s separation of families at the southern border and his attempt to end deferred enforcement of immigration policy against hundreds of thousands of young people whose parents brought them to the country without documents.

They have another strategy, too. To fight Trump’s socialism charges, the Biden campaign and Democratic Super PAC Priorities USA are countering by calling the president a “caudillo,” or a strongman, comparable to Venezuela’s Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

“Trump’s strategy is to sow division,” states Biden’s policy paper released Tuesday, called an “agenda for the Latino community,” and “to cast out Latinos as being less than fully American.”

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