Latino voters in Pennsylvania are diverse, growing in number — and could sway the election

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MONICA HERNDON/The Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — A decade ago, Ángela Rodríguez became an American citizen and promptly registered as a Democrat. But for Rodríguez, a native of the Dominican Republic, years of living in the United States have reshaped her perception of the party’s relationship with the more than 60 million Latinos in this country.

"They have done absolutely nothing but use us,” said Rodríguez, 57, a stay-at-home caregiver for her 4-year-old granddaughter.

Maricela Ayllon, 49, has been a registered Democrat since 1999. But this year, said the Kennett Square resident and Mexico native, "I don’t feel satisfied with either of the candidates on the ballot.”

And Maram Jaber, 25, a Philadelphian of Puerto Rican descent, is sickened by the racism she sees coming from President Donald Trump — but she isn’t particularly enthusiastic about the alternative.

“For sure,” she said, asked if she knew who would get her vote. “Biden is his name?”

There are more than half a million Latinos in Pennsylvania who are eligible to vote, making up about 5% of the electorate, according to the Pew Research Center. The state’s Puerto Rican population makes up the largest bloc, followed by Mexicans and Dominicans. Latinos live across the state, but many are concentrated in cities including Allentown, Reading, Philadelphia and the borough of Kennett Square in Chester County.

And while Joe Biden is expected to win Latinos handily, even small shifts toward Trump could prove pivotal in a state decided by less than 1% of the vote in 2016 that is again seen as likely to determine who wins the presidency. With Trump having lost ground among older voters, white women and others, Latinos are seen as an area where he can grow support.

“If (Trump) does shave a few points in these groups, he has the potential to repeat what happened in 2016,” said Christopher Borick, a pollster and political scientist at Muhlenberg College in Allentown. “There’s a diversity of interests within the community — social, economic — that have avenues in which Latinos could align with the president.”

Latinos lean Democratic, but there is no one Latino vote. Different groups have distinct policy priorities, shaped by factors including faith, the economy and national heritage.

Polls show Latino men are more likely to back Trump than are women, similar to gender gaps among Black voters and white voters. Pennsylvania’s more than 493,000 total Puerto Ricans make up almost half the state’s Latino population. And many share cultural values with the Republican Party.

“PR is a very conservative island," said Nilda Iris Ruiz, president and chief executive of the Philadelphia nonprofit Asociación Puertorriquenos en Marcha. “It has very traditional values.”

Rafael Morales, a Puerto Rican who lives in Philadelphia, said he’s likely to support Trump. He cited the president’s support for Israel.

“I believe in the Bible and I believe the Israel people are very important,” the 55-year-old said. “It’s not even about money. It’s about principles.”

He acknowledged Trump’s immigration policies have harmed some people but sees them as a necessary protection.

“There’s a lot of good immigrants here that he’s hurting, but there’s a lot of bad immigrants also," Morales said. "At the same time you’ve got bad people coming in.”

Polling of Pennsylvania Latino voters' preferences in the presidential race is sparse. But nationally and in some other key swing states, surveys show Biden winning Latino voters by a wide margin — although a narrower one than Hillary Clinton enjoyed. Even top Latino Democrats in the state worry about Trump making inroads.

Latino voters also historically turn out at low rates. In 2016, about 47% of eligible Latinos cast ballots, according to census data, compared with 62% of white voters and 59% of Black voters.

“As a major ethnic group in the country, Hispanic voters have underperformed,” Borick said.

One obstacle is language barriers. Only three counties in Pennsylvania — Philadelphia, Berks and Lehigh — offer Spanish-language assistance at the polls (mail ballots are available statewide in Spanish).

The state’s Latino population also tends to be less wealthy than the average voter, with a median household income of $55,658 as of 2019, the Census Bureau reported, about $10,000 less than the state median. Lower-income voters are generally more likely to hold jobs with hours that make voting harder. And Latinos have particularly suffered from the pandemic’s economic consequences, with Pew finding 59% of Latino families reporting lost jobs or income due to the coronavirus earlier this year.

Elected officials and political candidates have also historically ignored these voters, giving them little reason to go to the polls. Top Latino Democrats in Pennsylvania complained this month that Biden’s campaign has been slow to engage voters.

Immigrant communities can be particularly hard to turn out, especially under a presidential administration that has implemented harsh immigration policies.

“They’ve been burned in the past by government,” said Jossie Sapunar, 30, who works with the progressive group Casa in Action to mobilize voters in Black and Latino communities, including through door-to-door canvassing in Dauphin, Lancaster, York and Chester counties. "Or they are new citizens, so they didn’t yet know what comes with that, the power that comes with voting.”

Dominicans make up the state’s second-largest group of immigrants after people from India, according to the American Immigration Council, and they are also one of the fastest-growing immigrant populations.

Miguel Bautista, 56, an auto mechanic in North Philadelphia, became a U.S. citizen in 2002. A Democrat, Bautista said he might not vote this year because he’s concerned Biden might favor a policy of unification between Dominican Republic and Haiti — something the former vice president has not endorsed. Bautista said he was basing his information on videos and articles he’s received from relatives and friends on WhatsApp.

He said he fears Democrats would push toward destabilizing the Caribbean countries and keep him from enjoying retirement in Dominican Republic. If he votes, he said, it may be for Trump.

“I fear that the Democrats will support a foreign policy that will hurt the economy and stability of my country," he said. "That’s all.”

Latinos have been targeted with misinformation, false narratives about vote rigging, conspiracy theories or intimidation, such as false warnings that immigration authorities will patrol polling places. Maegan Llerena, state director for Make the Road Action in Pennsylvania, has seen messages sowing distrust in the post office among potential Latino voters, and information heaping sole blame for the lack of a second stimulus on Democrats.

Trump’s attitudes and policies toward immigrants, though, are a powerful argument against voting Republican for many Latinos.

Madeline Morales, 44, a Kennett Square woman of Puerto Rican descent, is in a relationship with a Mexican man who does not have legal status in the United States. Trump’s immigration policies, which included separating migrant children from their parents, are why she is voting for Biden. She sees in people like her partner, rather, people who are hardworking and underappreciated.

“They are the ones who get up at 2 or 3 in the morning to pick mushrooms, to clean bathrooms, to pick up trash," she said.

The Trump administration’s handling of the devastation Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused in Puerto Rico in 2017 has also alienated voters with ties to the island. More than 3,000 people died in Hurricane Maria, and the island, an unincorporated U.S. territory where residents are American citizens but can’t vote in presidential general elections, suffered $100 billion in property damage.

Images of Trump tossing rolls of paper towels at people left destitute by the storm were insulting, Puerto Ricans said, and so far the island has received just a third of the $50 billion in aid Congress promised, according to a recent Al Día report.

Pennsylvania is believed to have received the second-most evacuees in the country after Florida, about 25,000 people in 2017, according to a report from the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. The state’s Puerto Rican population today includes large clusters in the Lehigh Valley and Philadelphia.

Latino Victory, a political action committee, is running a Spanish-language radio ad campaign for Biden in swing states, including a $250,000 campaign in Pennsylvania. The ads focus on health care, the coronavirus, student loan forgiveness and free community college, and immigration. Almost 354,000 Mexican immigrants became naturalized citizens from 2016 to 2018, according to the Department of Homeland Security. Luis Miranda, chair of the board of directors for the Latino Victory Fund, said Trump’s hard-line border policies are a powerful motivator for these voters.

“If they vote for Trump,” Miranda said, “they’re voting against themselves and their families.”

Like most Americans, health concerns have surged to the top of Latino voters’ list of priorities this year, but the stakes are even higher for those voters. Almost three times more Latinos are afflicted by the virus than white populations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and they experience 4.6 times more hospitalizations. Death rates are also slightly higher than among whites.

Morales, the Kennett Square woman, had two daughters and a granddaughter afflicted by COVID-19. Her granddaughter was hospitalized. A housekeeper at a retirement home, Morales needs a second job because she can’t afford child care for her two young children.

“He feels like the pandemic is going to go away,” she said of Trump. “I feel like it’s not.”

Manuel Fuentes, of Reading, has already mailed his ballot. The 56-year-old Puerto Rican has severe complications from asthma and said his fear of the pandemic turned a likely Trump voter into one for Biden.

“President Trump, he started off good. I can’t really complain about him,” Fuentes said.

But referring to Trump’s declaration this month that he felt like “Superman” for beating the virus, Fuentes added: “When it comes down to this pandemic … he thinks everybody is Superman.”

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(Staff writers Jonathan Lai and Jeff Gammage and staff photographer Heather Khalifa contributed to this article.)

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©2020 The Philadelphia Inquirer