“I think it’s been misunderstood,” said Ruy Teixeira, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute who has studied Latino voter preferences for decades.
While many Latino voters support a more “humane treatment” of migrants and creating a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, Teixeira said there are many in the community who “are not really interested or delighted by the idea people can just pour across the border. … They also think we need more border security.”
While polls show the majority of Hispanics align with Democrats on immigration, the GOP has recently made significant gains, even while escalating the anti-immigrant rhetoric popularized by former President Donald Trump.
About 55% of Latinos support Democrats on the issue of legal immigration, according to a recent NYT/Siena College poll, which also indicated roughly a third support a border wall along the US southern border.
With candidates racing to capture every last vote, Latinos – who make up more than 30 million of the country’s registered voters – could tilt the scales in major contests across battleground states.
“There’s a vulnerability there. There’s a soft underbelly for the Democrats on this issue, even among Hispanic voters,” Teixera said.
Views at the southern border
A hardline immigration policy is part of what Abraham Enriquez says attracted him and other Latinos in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley to Trump.
“I think Latinos, we don’t really care much about what you say, it’s about what you’re going to do,” said Enriquez, who founded Bienvenido US, an organization that aims to mobilize conservative Hispanic voters.
The grandson of Mexican migrants, Enriquez says Democrats are losing support among the nations’ fastest growing voting bloc because their rhetoric is out of touch: too critical of the capitalist system and not critical enough of what he calls unrestricted immigration.
“If America is so bad, if America is such a terrible country to live in, why did 50 migrants die suffocated in a trailer to seek a better life in this country?” he asked.
Trump unexpectedly made gains in the Rio Grande Valley in 2020 and the region recently elected the first GOP representative in more than a century, after US Rep. Mayra Flores won a special election earlier this year.
While Republicans are closely eyeing three congressional races in South Texas as a test of their appeal in the community, immigration attorney Carlos Gonzalez argues campaign promises often don’t lead to change. He says a sensible, balanced approach to reform is sorely needed, but missing from the public discourse surrounding immigration.
“Neither party is addressing the issue well,” Gonzalez said. “Either they talk to the right, or they talk to the left, but they don’t come (to the border) and talk to us. They don’t see what we’re doing on a daily basis.”
Gonzalez criticized Texas Republican Gov. Greg Abbott’s busing of migrants to Democrat-led cities as an “inhumane” way to win votes, not a genuine effort to help migrants or border towns.
‘This country moves because of immigrants’
In Florida, another state with a large Hispanic population, GOP Gov. Ron DeSantis similarly took the controversial step in September of flying dozens of Venezuelan asylum-seekers to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts – a move that pro-immigration advocate Maria Corina Vegas called a “stunt.”
“It may make for interesting television, to raise money, to play to the base, to feed a narrative of grievance. That’s what populists do, effectively,” said Vegas, a deputy state director for the American Business Immigration Coalition, a group that promotes comprehensive immigration reform.
As a Venezuelan-American who came to the US fleeing Hugo Chavez’s communist regime, she argued the demonization of outsiders among politicians may help motivate some supporters, but will ultimately harm the country.
“I never thought I would see that in this country. I saw that in my country – it tore my country apart. It doesn’t matter if it comes from the right or the left. It’s anti-democratic,” Vegas said.
For Cuban-born entrepreneur Julio Cabrera, the issue is tied inextricably to the American economy: “This country moves because of immigrants and Latinos. … We do the dirty jobs others do not want.”
Cabrera is turned off by anti-immigrant rhetoric, he says, because the vast majority of immigrants entering the US are decent people looking to work and build a better life. He believes the immigration system should be kinder to those who have risked their lives for a better future.
After fleeing Fidel Castro’s communist dictatorship in 2006, Cabrera says he was robbed at gunpoint while traveling through Mexico before arriving at the southern border, where he sought asylum with his daughter.
Now, he is a successful restauranteur, running Cafe La Trova in Miami, where he says most of his staff are immigrants.
“Everybody is an immigrant here and we’ve done something remarkable for this community.”
Younger voters, like Marvin Tapia – a Colombian-American who lives in Little Havana – argues the recent rise in anti-immigrant sentiment is tied to nationwide demographic change, which he says is a positive development more politicians should embrace.
“If we’re sharing a country built on immigrants, we should be proud of that. That we evolved and we grow and change. … I believe that growth is pivotal to the growth of a country, especially like the US,” Tapia said. “We should learn from it, instead of run from it.”
CORRECTION: This story has been updated to correct Carlos Gonzalez’ last name.