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Immigration Debate Marks Rising Clout Of Young Latinos

Roberto Koltun/The Miami Herald

Jose Antonio Machado was brought to Miami as an undocumented immigrant from Matagalpa, Nicaragua, when he was six years old. He grew up here with his mother, Melba, also an indocumentada, until she was deported two years ago after being pulled over for a traffic violation.

“I expected her home at 11:15 p.m. that night,” says Machado, now an 18-year-old who graduated this month from Miami Senior High School. “Eventually I fell asleep. The next morning I realized she wasn’t there.”

After Melba was returned to Nicaragua, Machado and his brother had to sell their family’s belongings and enter the South Florida foster care system. Machado hasn’t seen his mother since.

Machado himself might have been sent back to Central America, a place that is utterly foreign to him now, but for the foster care agency and President Obama’s decree last year that undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children be spared deportation and steered toward legal residency.

Since then, Machado has thrown himself into the debate over immigration reform that is nearing a climax in Washington this summer, as Congress looks set to vote on a landmark bill to repair the nation’s broken immigrant visa and hiring systems, create a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented people living in the U.S. and toughen border security.

Not surprisingly, family reunification measures are a particularly important part of that legislation for Machado, who has become a leading spokesman for the national immigrant advocacy network United We Dream.

“There is a provision in the Senate bill,” he notes referring to the bill’s “right to return” provision, “that would allow me to petition for my mom and bring her back.”

The Latino Vote

But if immigrant youngsters like Machado are watching Washington closely these days, Washington is taking more notice of them in return -- especially Republican leaders, who hope immigration reform will help their party improve its lowly standing with the nation’s most sought after swing vote, Latinos.

But if immigrant youngsters like Machado are watching Washington closely these days, Washington is taking more notice of them in return -- especially Republican leaders, who hope immigration reform will help their party improve its lowly standing with the nation’s most sought after swing vote, Latinos.

Perhaps most important in the political long run are Latino youths: almost two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population are under age 35, and many of them aren’t happy with GOP opposition to legislation like the DREAM Act, which would grant U.S. residency, under conditions, to undocumented immigrants like Machado who arrived as innocent kids. (Obama’s 2012 executive order essentially does that.)

They also question Florida’s Republican Governor, Rick Scott, who this month vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for young undocumented immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Scott insists he nixed it because such measures aren’t written into federal law yet.

But Latinos like Machado, noting that the bill passed nearly unanimously in both Florida legislative chambers, have called Scott’s veto a political nod to his conservative Tea Party base, and that it simply gives younger Latinos more impetus to “make sure we register more voters in the future and make sure our community is heard on these issues.”

Support For Sen. Rubio

Machado says his Latino peers hold a more favorable view of Florida's Republican Senator Marco Rubio, a Miami Cuban-American who helped draft the new immigration reform on Capitol Hill and has written his own version of the DREAM Act.

“The Senator has shown true leadership,” says Machado, who briefly spoke with Rubio in Washington earlier this year. “He has stuck his neck out for the Latino community.”

At the same time, Machado says he told Rubio that immigrants are worried the GOP might scuttle the reform legislation’s path to citizenship by insisting on ever tougher border security measures in return.

In my interview with Machado, however, I reminded him that many Americans still see components like the path to citizenship as simply a reward for people who broke the law by entering the U.S. illegally.

His response, while understandable, isn’t likely to sway them: “There are so many contributions that [undocumented immigrants] offer to the United States of America,” he says. “Our parents are brave, courageous individuals who left their countries and came to this one to make sure that we had a better future.”

I also pointed out to Machado that while Obama’s 2012 decree has benefited hundreds of thousands of “DREAMers” like him, as they’re called, the Obama Administration has deported a near record number of other undocumented immigrants, like Machado’s mother.

“This is why the Republican Party has a real opportunity with Latino voters,” he says. “President Obama,” he believes, “has failed” in that regard.

Political Aspirations

Machado, who will enroll at Florida International University this fall, says he hopes someday to be elected a U.S. Senator like Rubio.

His mother Melba, meanwhile, has since moved to Spain, and he communicates regularly with her via phone, e-mail and “letters with pictures we still draw for each other about our experiences."

Immigration reform, meanwhile, is a collective U.S. experience “that has to happen this year," he adds. "Now is the moment.”

And at this moment, it’s looking as though it’s one dream that just might come true -- and just might bring Republicans and young Latinos like Machado a little closer.


  The Latin America Report is made possible by Espírito Sandto Bank and Morrison Brown Argiz & Fara, LLC.