All of the candidates on the debate stage Wednesday night have already said that they support giving citizenship to young immigrants like Vela, who came to the United States from Mexico with her parents when she was 4 and has been protected from deportation through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. The Supreme Court is reviewing the Trump administration’s effort to end the program.
Trump made immigration — and the demonization of immigrants who came to the country illegally — a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign and of his presidency, so Vela is surprised that Democrats have not made countering his message one of their top priorities, something deeply discussed at every debate, like health care.
“What is going to happen with young individuals who didn’t qualify for DACA? What’s going to happen to the people who have been waiting in line for 20 years?” said Vela, 24, a college student who is studying political science. “Our immigration system is broken. It’s outdated. It’s not working. What are they going to do?”
As they watched Democrats churn through another event in the lengthy process of picking a presidential nominee, Vela and other young Latino voters with whom she watched the debate said they often feel forgotten. The first two nominating states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have overwhelmingly white populations; the fourth, South Carolina, has a large number of African American voters. The third voting state, Nevada, will highlight Latinos but has gotten far less attention from the candidates than the other three.
Most campaigns have not spent the time and money to fully engage Latino voters, who participate in elections at much lower rates than whites or African Americans. In Georgia, about 2 percent of voters in 2018 were Latino, even though Latinos make up about 10 percent of the population.
“There have been so many years of false promises where we have been let down by both parties,” Vela said. “When it comes to election time, we are used as a platform and then there’s nothing.”
The watch party she attended was organized by Latino Democratic Party leaders and held at Mariscos Mazatlan, a seafood grill in a suburban shopping plaza about 30 miles northeast of the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, where the debate was held. The restaurant, known for its ceviche and tropical drinks, is in the Pleasant Hill Plaza, home to a sprawling East Asian grocery store and restaurants serving Filipino cuisine, Peruvian burgers, Vietnamese pho, Colombian chicken, bubble tea, Korean barbecue, crepes and hibachi fare.
The gathering attracted about a dozen Latino 20-somethings, plus a young woman who came to the United States as a refugee from Bosnia, the son of Vietnamese immigrants, a handful of activists who work on immigrant rights issues, and a 55-year-old African American criminal defense lawyer who is running for district attorney in Gwinnett County.
It was the first time Jasmin Alvarez had watched a debate, and she was surprised the candidates spent so much time “throwing each other under the bus.” The 24-year-old has never voted but plans to do so next year. She has yet to pick a favorite candidate — or decide which candidates she doesn’t like — so the debate offered a sweeping introduction to the field.
Alvarez was thrilled to hear candidates asked to talk about lowering the cost of child care, the lack of paid parental leave and the gender pay gap, which is largest for Latinas. Those questions prompted snaps of approval from many Latinas and were opportunities for Alvarez to share her experiences with the young Latino activist sitting next to her.
“It’s true,” she said of the gender pay gap, adding that she works at an e-commerce company that started her at $10 per hour and then later hired some young men at $12 per hour. “They gave me a ‘raise,’ and I was like, ‘This isn’t a raise.’ ”
More than an hour into the debate, the camera panned over the 10 candidates standing on the stage, and one Latina at the restaurant suddenly blurted out: “Wait! Where’s Julián Castro?”
The others told her his polling numbers were too low to qualify. Castro, who served as housing secretary in the Obama administration, was by far the favorite candidate of the group — and everyone insisted it was not because he is the only Latino candidate.
“It’s because he’s the one who has talked about issues that are important to people of color,” said Gabriel Velazquez, 34, who owns the Taqueria El Mercadito in Gainesville, Ga. “If you ignore race, you’re not going to be a candidate for all of us. . . . You look at the top three candidates — a white woman and white men. I don’t say that to diss them, but I can’t ignore that it’s three white candidates.”
Velazquez hesitates to call himself a Democrat, “because both parties have ignored us,” but Trump’s presidency pushed him to get politically involved. He wants to hear Democratic candidates focus on police reform, combating systemic racism and providing reparations to the descendants of slaves, in addition to implementing universal health care through a program like Medicare-for-all. He is concerned that some candidates are easing off their support for Medicare-for-all, after polling showing voters are skeptical about its effects.
His “distant second” choice for president is Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), because, he said, she has deeply researched plans backing up her ideas. But other than Castro and Warren, Velazquez said he can’t imagine voting for any of the others — especially if the nominee is a moderate such as former vice president Joe Biden or South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
“People will say: ‘But that means four more years of Trump,’ ” he said, making clear that he does not want that. “That matters to me, but I can’t sit here and give my vote to a candidate who ignores things like racism.”
Several debate-watchers said they were glad to hear the candidates talk about affordable housing, a growing problem in the Atlanta area, and voter suppression, which former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has sought to make a national issue. Throughout the night, several candidates said Democrats need to do more to connect with African Americans, who make up about a third of Georgia’s population, and address racial disparities in health care, pay and criminal justice.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) gave a passionate monologue about why “black voters are pissed off,” saying that politicians seem to pay attention to them only when they are running for office. Booker noted that Biden opposes the legalization of marijuana, which Booker said “is already legal for privileged people” because “the war on drugs has been a war on black and brown people.”
“Yup! Yup! Yup!” shouted Wesley Person, 55. He is running for district attorney in Gwinnett County against a 27-year incumbent on a platform of making the criminal justice system more equitable. “Cory Booker is right on.”
Other debate-watchers applauded along as Booker spoke, in what amounted to the most animated portion of the night.
Person said his favorite candidate is Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) because of her time as a prosecutor, which he says was not perfect but “started a trend of progressive prosecution.” The lawyer said he has been disappointed with Biden for the same reasons that Booker gave on the debate stage.
“God bless his heart, I think Vice President Biden lives in the past,” Person said, adding that the diverse 20-somethings around him are the future of the party and that leaders need to remember that.
A few minutes before 11 p.m., the restaurant closed for the night — an hour later than usual — and the group moved outside, chatting among themselves as the debate continued. Several people noted the heavy focus on Trump throughout the night.
“The conversation has to move past Trump,” Velazquez said. “We get it — Trump is a liar, Trump is a racist, Trump is a misogynist. But just being against Trump isn’t enough to win.”
Scott Clement in Washington contributed to this report.