PHILADELPHIA — Eric Trump traveled to a Philadelphia church on a rainy Friday this month, seeking Latino votes for his father. Not many people showed up.
But the sparse “Latinos for Trump” attendance at In the Light Ministries, in the city’s Feltonville section, obscured a political opportunity: Latino support for Joe Biden is no given, and even small gains for President Donald Trump could make a big difference in a state that was decided by less than 1% of the votes cast in 2016.
Latinos are a broad, diverse group, nearly a million strong in Pennsylvania — and they don’t cast ballots as a monolith. Latinos make up about 5% of eligible voters. And while Biden is widely expected to win Latinos overall, even Democrats worry about Trump making inroads — especially among men — and that outreach from the Biden campaign has been sluggish.
What might seem disqualifying — harsh immigration policies, separating families at the Southwest border, ugly racial rhetoric — doesn’t hurt Trump with some Hispanic voters.
“I support the president for many reasons,” said Tim Ramos, an Allentown truck driver, former mayoral candidate, and local GOP leader there. “I’m looking for opportunities for my community. Under President Trump the economy was booming before the pandemic. … That’s my No. 1, the ability to create a future for my family and those around me.”
Ramos, vice chair of the Lehigh County Republican Committee, said that when he talks to other Latinos, the main issues are jobs, safety amid civil unrest, and the pandemic.
“Both parties are trying to court the Latino vote and population,” said Ramos, who plans a second run for mayor of Allentown, a city of 121,000 that’s more than half Latino. “Both parties recognize that it’s very important.”
Immigration concerns rank behind, but they aren’t distant, he said.
He’s spent nights calling Southwest Border Patrol stations, looking for information on missing members of local families — after he had urged people to dissuade their loved ones from trying to make the dangerous journey north.
Many Latinos have never forgotten or forgiven the language Trump used on the day in 2015 when he declared his presidential bid, accusing Mexico of sending “criminals” and “rapists” to the United States. But Abraham Lopez, who attended the Philadelphia church event, said the president wasn’t talking about him or the people he knows.
“He’s saying things that are unkind about criminals,” said Lopez, a committeeman at the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. “The Hispanic community, we’re not dumb. That law-and-order message is resonating.”
Lopez said he didn’t vote for Trump in 2016 because he found his rhetoric disconcerting. But since then Lopez has been swayed, he said, by Trump’s performance on the economy and particularly by his antiabortion stance
“Pro-family, pro-life, pro-economy,” he said, predicting that people who don’t think Trump can win Pennsylvania “are in for a rude awakening.”
George Fernandez, the founder and CEO of Latino Connection, a Harrisburg marketing and communications agency, said that the Trump administration “has done things wrong, but it also has done many things right.”
“This is the first election where Latinos don’t just have one candidate to vote for,” he said.
Fernandez was 8 when he came from the Dominican Republic to Harrisburg with his mother. She spoke no English, and as he learned the language, he served as her interpreter and advocate in matters big and small. He embraced conservative values at a young age. In 2012, he voted to reelect President Barack Obama. Then, as a gay man who wanted to protect marriage equality, he cast a ballot for Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Today, he’s undecided.
“I’m very concerned for the financial state of our country,” Fernandez said.
He likes Biden but said the Democratic nominee has failed to articulate a clear economic plan. At the same time, he wants no more of Trump’s Twitter rants.
“We’ve seen things in America we thought we’d never see, 500 (migrant) children whose parents can’t be found,” he said, referring to the consequences of a Trump administration policy — abandoned amid international outrage — that separated children from parents crossing the border.
Fernandez said his immigrant experience is central to his life. He and his mother sold empanadas to survive their early years in the country.
But immigration reform, he said, has slid down the list of priorities amid the pandemic. Trump insulting Mexicans is old news, he said.
Now, days from the election, he asks Latino voters: “What are your top three issues? Whichever candidate is speaking the best to those two or three issues, that’s who you need to vote for.”
©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer