Yes, The Dems Should Visit Homestead. No, It's Not A Substitute For Engaging Latinos

Jun 26, 2019

COMMENTARY

It’s a photo that makes a cry of pain slip from your throat.

Lying face down on the bank of the Rio Grande in Mexico are the corpses of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Martínez and his toddler daughter Valeria. She is tucked inside his T-shirt; her tiny arm still clings to his neck. They drowned trying to cross the river into the U.S. this week – another tragic image, another border Pietà, for America’s bitter conversation about immigration and the suffering of migrant families.

The drowned bodies of Salvadoran migrant Oscar Martinez and his daughter Valeria on the Rio Grande in Mexico.
Credit Julia Le Duc / AP

Politically, it resonates more loudly this week since the swarm of Democratic presidential hopefuls has descended on Miami for debates whose key topics include America’s broken immigration system – and President Trump’s demonization of immigrants.

No doubt the photo is helping prod those candidates to head south from Miami to Homestead, to the country’s largest shelter housing undocumented migrant children. About half the 20 Democratic contenders taking part in the debates have gone to the facility – Senator Elizabeth Warren took a bus caravan – or will visit it this week to decry the allegedly “prison-like” conditions for its 3,000 young, mostly Latin American detainees.

READ MORE: America Won't Solve Immigration By Loathing Latin Americans. Ask the Irish.

They’re not being allowed in, of course. But their bigger aims are to hammer at President Trump’s inhumane border policies – and to win over Latino voters here.

They’ll achieve the former. The latter? Not really.

Presidential candidates were once notorious for visiting the Versailles restaurant in Little Havana to bond with Florida’s Latino vote. Homestead is not the new Versailles.

Florida’s Latinos are still the Latinos who swing presidential elections. But even though the Homestead shelter is in their backyard, most of Florida’s Latino voters aren’t as passionate about that controversy as Democratic politicians think they should be.

Winning Florida's Latino vote remains key - but while immigration certainly matters, Democrats need to wake up to the fact that it's more complicated than immigration. Homestead is not the new Versailles.

It’s a reminder that winning enough Latino voter support in Florida is harder work for Democrats than for Republicans. Democrats have to win a lot of it to take Florida; the GOP has to garner just enough to secure that one percentage point – or less – that often captures the state.

Ask Trump – who four years ago got 35 percent of Florida’s Latino vote and won here by…that one percentage point.

Many think he did it by securing a larger than expected chunk of the Cuban bloc. Its more conservative voters (aka the ones who vote) care about his get-tough-on-Cuba policy but generally aren’t that moved by immigration (though Cubans’ recent loss of their special immigration privileges may change that). Meanwhile, Democrats need to motivate the larger cohort of more moderate Cubans.

In fact, if Florida’s Cubans really were that bothered by Trump’s immigration policies, a new Mason-Dixon poll wouldn’t show 59 percent of them approve of him and those policies. Nor would 34 percent of Latinos say they still plan to vote for Trump next year – and more than 56 percent would say they’ll back a Democratic candidate.

APPALLING TREATMENT

And Florida’s other sizable Latino constituencies?

Puerto Rican community leaders have spoken out against the Homestead shelter. But Puerto Rican voters are another thing. Even Puerto Ricans born on the U.S. island territory are U.S. citizens by birth, so immigration isn’t usually a galvanizing concern. Trump’s appalling treatment of Puerto Rico after the 2017 hurricanes is, of course. But to engage that grievance the Dems need to visit storm victims in San Juan more than family separation victims in Homestead.

Children detained at the Homestead Temporary Shelter for Unaccompanied Children last week.
Credit Matias J. Ocner / Miami Herald

In an ICR survey this week, Venezuelans – arguably Florida’s fastest-growing Latino bloc – did call immigration their most urgent issue. A third of them who’ve registered to vote are Democrats; fewer than 5 percent are Republicans. But they’re more preoccupied about receiving Temporary Protected Status here – and seeing regime change in Venezuela – than about Central American minors in detention.

The Latino voters who do care ardently about the situation in Homestead are far away. Mexican-Americans in California and Texas; Hondurans in New Orleans; Salvadorans in Washington D.C. And their voter turnout levels still pale in comparison to that of Florida’s Cubans.

I’m certainly not suggesting Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Venezuelans are somehow callously indifferent to the children in Homestead – or to the Salvadoran father and daughter who drowned in the Rio Grande this week. I’m simply pointing out the balkanized reality of the Latino demographic that Democrats too often forget.

Yes, they should visit the Homestead shelter. But no, they shouldn’t expect that to accomplish their Latino mission, especially in Florida. That will require harder, smarter work than they did in 2016.