Latino organizers sensed an opportunity when they heard Donald Trump was bringing his presidential campaign to Marshalltown, a small farm city that is home to an increasing number of Latino immigrants and their children.
So they organized protests at the high school gymnasium where Trump spoke Tuesday, with about 50 young Latinos marching silently outside as a smattering of Trump supporters hurled insults and laughed at them.
But the protest was only the beginning. Down the street, advocates held a drive to register voters and educate immigrants on the complexities of next week’s Iowa caucuses, the kickoff for the presidential nominating process.
“We want to turn his negativity into a positive for our community,” said Joe Enriquez Henry, whose group, the League of United Latin American Citizens, helped organize the event.
In Iowa, where voters have been exposed to the presidential campaign at a level of intensity that most Americans won’t experience until fall, Latinos have already begun to counterpunch Trump, prompted by his calls for a massive border wall to keep out immigrants whom he has described as rapists, drug dealers and carriers of infectious disease.
Democratic and Republican campaigns have also been wooing Latinos angered by Trump’s rhetoric. When Jeb Bush’s Latino outreach workers field questions about Trump, they often tell voters that caucusing for Bush is the best bet to combat the real estate mogul.
Whether a similar movement takes shape across the country remains to be seen, but many Latino leaders are hoping Trump could be the catalyst to push their growing but chronically underperforming electorate to the polls. There is talk of a “Trump effect” rivaling Proposition 187, the anti-illegal-immigration measure that jolted California Latinos to action 20 years ago and is credited with helping create the state’s current Latino power structure.
“My gut is that it’ll be substantial,” Democratic consultant Bill Carrick said of Latino turnout in November. “They have been activated.”
The energy was palpable in Marshalltown on Tuesday, where Trump appeared alongside controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has put in place strict policies in his county in Arizona aimed at identifying immigrants in the country illegally.
In addition to the protest outside, other Latinos entered the gymnasium to disrupt Trump with shouts of: “Latinos united will never be divided!” Trump, who garnered headlines at the event for announcing that he would not appear in Thursday’s Republican debate because of disagreements with host Fox News, smiled as the protesters were ushered out, telling one of them, “Enjoy yourself, darling.”
Alcivar, a graduate student at Iowa State University in Ames, says she feels a sense of responsibility to stand up to Trump and his supporters.
“It’s an attack to my community and directly to me,” she said. “He’s allowing people to feel comfortable to cross a dangerous line.”
Alcivar plans to vote for Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders when she attends her first caucus on Monday. But she says she knows Latinos who have registered to take part in Republican caucuses just so they can vote for candidates other than Trump.
Even though Latinos in Iowa are organizing like never before, there are hurdles to widespread participation by their community in the caucuses and the November election.
For years, the Latino vote has been regarded as sleeping giant on the verge of waking, even as turnout rates continue to lag behind whites and blacks. That’s in part because they are concentrated largely in such noncompetitive states as California and Texas. Eligible Latinos are also on average much younger than other demographic groups, and young people tend to vote at lower rates.
There is also a level of mistrust among some Latinos about the political process after President Obama boosted deportations and failed to deliver immigration reform after winning large numbers of Latino votes in 2008 and 2012.
Veronica Guevara, 24, fought hard for Obama in the 2012 election, telling anybody who would listen about his pledge to push through legislation to create a path to citizenship for immigrants in the country illegally. Four years later, she feels disillusioned.
While Guevara plans to caucus for Bernie Sanders on Monday, she hasn’t been campaigning for him.
“It’s a disservice to try to guide people any certain way because they might end up disappointed,” said Guevara, who works at a nonprofit in Des Moines. She has had trouble persuading her father, an employee at the meatpacking plant that has drawn many Latino immigrants to Marshalltown in recent years, to vote at all this time around.
Latino Republicans face a different battle — and one that could have long-term consequences for their party.
Juan Rodriguez, 43, a prominent Colombian immigrant in Des Moines who owns a restaurant, an insurance agency and a Spanish-language radio station, said he decided to support Bush in part because Bush has stood up to Trump. Rodriguez also likes that Bush speaks Spanish, is married to a Latina and called Rodriguez personally to win his endorsement.
Rodriguez has been working hard to persuade fellow Latino business owners to caucus for Bush. A few have agreed. But others, like his brother, say they aren’t willing to consider Republican candidates because of Trump.
“Why should we vote for Republicans? They’re going to deport everybody,” his brother, a barbershop owner whose clientele is largely in the U.S. illegally, told him recently. “They’re going to deport my customers.”