Donald Trump’s hard-line promises and portrayal of undocumented immigrants as murderers and rapists could make this a turning-point year in Yakima County, where voting by Latinos has been low.
YAKIMA — In the upscale, softly lit restaurant and tequila bar he owns, Daniel Flores said he has been eligible to vote since he became a citizen in 2003. Yet the Mexico-born, Eastern Washington-raised 35-year-old has never cast a ballot.
As with many Latinos in Yakima and elsewhere, voting just wasn’t something his family did. “It’s not their business, I guess they thought,” Flores said of his farmworker parents.
As for him, he said, “I didn’t feel like I needed to vote.” Until now. Flores plans to cast a ballot for the first time in November. The reason: Donald Trump.
If Trump is elected, Flores fears, the Republican nominee is likely to end the program for so-called “Dreamers” created by President Obama, which provides temporary legal status to undocumented immigrants who came here as children.
Two of Flores’ sisters-in-law are Dreamers. Co-owners and managers of his two restaurants (soon to be three), occupants of a house they bought together with a loan made possible by their new status, the young women’s ability to live a normal life hangs in the balance.
And it’s not just them, Flores said, taking a break from supervising a lunch for the Mexican consul in Seattle, here on a visit. “A lot of people are frustrated or scared,” he said.
The Latino vote is more important than ever in Washington. Hispanics, the largest ethnic group other than whites and the fastest growing, make up 11.7 percent of the state’s population, according to the latest U.S. Census figures.
Hispanics could have even more sway in Yakima County, a magnet for Spanish-speaking immigrants due to its fertile fields and plentiful warehouse jobs. Roughly half of the county’s residents are Hispanic, up from less than a quarter in 1990.
In a county that has long been reliably red, that could mean changing fortunes for Republican candidates and particularly bad news for Trump, whose call to build a border wall and portrayal of undocumented immigrants as murderers and rapists has infuriated even some conservative Latinos.
But Latinos have historically spoken, electorally, with a muted voice. County residents with Spanish surnames — tracked by the local auditor’s office due to a 2004 consent decree with the federal government over its outreach efforts — account for less than a third of registered voters.
Even more strikingly, a small percentage of those registered actually vote. In last year’s general election, less than 17 percent of county residents with Spanish surnames mailed in ballots they received — compared with 38 percent of other registered voters.
So although voter registration among county residents with Spanish surnames has already risen by 46 percent this election season, that’s not enough, said Luz Bazán Gutiérrez, founder of Yakima’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
“Getting them to follow up is the hardest part,” she said.
Gutiérrez recently started a weekly program on Spanish-language radio station KDNA to encourage Latinos to vote, one of several efforts with the same aim.
The question is: Will those efforts — and Latinos’ strong feelings about Trump — make this year a turning point?
“Opportunity to be heard”
In the city of Yakima, 2015 already brought political change. An American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit led to redistricting and the first three Latinos elected to the city council.
“Redistricting has given us an opportunity to be heard,” said newly elected council member Carmen Méndez.
While the Latino turnout was still low, it rose roughly a third or more among residents in two newly created majority-Hispanic districts, according to a Yakima Herald-Republic analysis.
“I absolutely do 100 percent feel this will have a huge impact on voter turnout (in November),” said Avina Gutiérrez, another new council member and daughter of Luz Bazán Gutiérrez.
The electoral overhaul certainly impacted Yulissa Martínez. She was just 18 and competing in a Cinco de Mayo pageant last year when she met Avina Gutiérrez, who was volunteering at the pageant.
“She really, really inspired me,” Martínez said. Never before interested in politics, the teenager started knocking on doors with the candidate in District 2, where Martínez herself lived. When election time came, she sent Avina Gutiérrez a picture of five sealed ballots — hers and those of four family members, all new voters.
Avina Gutiérrez stumbled in office — elected mayor by her peers, she stepped down from that role last month due to what Méndez described as performance issues — but Martínez is not disillusioned.
Walking around her neighborhood of modest homes, she pointed to a park. Once bare and blighted by yellowing grass, it now boasts a play structure and well-watered lawn.
Martínez now wants to study politics when she starts at Eastern Washington University this month and dreams of becoming governor some day.
And she definitely plans to vote in November.
Republicans, who after defeat in the last presidential election resolved to court Latino voters, have long said that many Hispanics share their conservative values. Martínez does to some extent. She said religion is important to her, and she supports gun rights. Without them, she asked, recalling the time an intruder tried to break into her home, “How am I supposed to defend myself?”
But while she believes Trump shares those values, she is distressed by what she sees as his harsh categorization of Mexican immigrants like her parents. The GOP candidate and his supporters don’t seem to understand how hard they work, she said.
Now employed by fruit-packing warehouses, her parents used to work in the fields, taking on two jobs each. Their hours were so long that she was raised largely by an older sister.
Many Hispanic immigrants, Martinez also noted, become quite successful.
Sergio Marquez is one. The 56-year-old farmer sneaked across the border as a teenager, became a citizen after marrying an American and parlayed his experience as a farmworker and foreman into running his own 120-acre apple orchard in Wapato, south of Yakima.
Watching roughly 20 workers pick apples one morning, making sure they discarded the fruit bearing deep brown sunspots, Marquez recalled his best season, four years ago. Hail and frost had damaged much of the country’s apple crop, but not his. Prices were so good that he paid off the debt on his orchard and invested in four other properties.
Needless to say, Trump’s depiction of Mexican immigrants doesn’t resonate with Marquez. So strong is his distaste that he likens the candidate to Hitler and said: “I can vote for anybody. I don’t care who it is. But not him.”
Of course, Trump has support in Yakima County, which has voted Republican in every presidential race since at least 1968. A “Trump Truck” that rolled into the area in August, giving out yard signs and bumper stickers, attracted some 100 people “who seemed to be energetic and enthused,” said John Tipton, the county’s Trump campaign co-chair.
Marquez said he sees such paraphernalia as a slap in the face. But Tipton, who is white, said it’s not meant that way.
“Most of the people I have contact with who are Hispanic are hardworking, good people,” he said. Still, he said, the area has a crime problem, and removing undocumented immigrants “would help a lot.”
“I don’t believe 11 million people should be deported. No, no, no,” said Debra Manjarrez, another Trump supporter and GOP candidate for county commissioner, giving the estimated number of undocumented immigrants nationwide. “They cheer with your kids at school. They’re all around you.”
While Trump has often seemed to call for mass deportation, Manjarrez, who is white and married to a man she said is descended on one side from Mexican immigrants, saw her candidate as coming around to a nuanced position.
That was right before Trump’s decidedly mixed messages during his visit to Mexico and Phoenix speech on immigration late last month. In Phoenix, he called to the stage family members of people killed by undocumented immigrants.
“I am not offended,” said Greg Vasquez, a Yakima crop-insurance salesman who is Hispanic. With roots in the U.S. stretching back generations, he agreed that people here illegally sometimes turn to a life of crime and need to be stopped.
In the main, though, he said, “Hispanics live to be self-employed” and that’s why Trump, the businessman, is the candidate for them.
Voting against Trump
National statistics do not bear that out. A poll of Latino voters this month by America’s Voice and Latino Decisions found Trump had an unfavorability rating of 70 percent or more in six of seven battleground states. Hillary Clinton, in contrast, was widely liked.
Flores, the restaurant owner, said he hopes Clinton will serve as an example for his daughter. “It’s kind of hard for a Latina,” he said, and he wants his 12-year-old to know she can “grow up to be a strong woman.”
But Clinton didn’t come up much in a walk around a largely Latino neighborhood in Yakima one recent evening with Mary López, Rogelio Montes and Jose Salazar. Organizers for the immigrant advocacy group OneAmerica, they were asking residents to sign a “pledge to vote” postcard that would later be sent to them as a reminder.
Almost to a person, those they found were eager to vote — against Trump. Several, like Flores, said this vote would be their first.
“That’s my main reason for becoming a citizen,” said Rafael Torres, a 33-year-old forklift driver who lived contentedly as a legal resident for 15 years until becoming concerned by Trump’s campaign.
Only Luis Diaz, standing in a warren of trailer homes where he lived, voiced ambivalence. The Mexico-born electrician, 29, said he had heard positives and negatives about what Trump would do as president.
The positive: Trump would get rid of undocumented workers getting paid under the table and driving wages down. Therefore, Diaz said he was told, “I’m going to get a raise.”
The negative: “Even though I’m a citizen, I’m going to get deported.”
He needed more information, he said. The organizers didn’t attempt to give it to him or offer their opinion. Working for a nonprofit, they were limited in what they could say.
But they could, after finding out he was not registered to vote, help him fill out the necessary form.
As they did so, Montes, a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit over redistricting, talked in Spanish about that effort and the resulting new Latino council members. Voting, he continued “is the only way we can change anything.”
“Oh my God,” said Diaz. “I didn’t know.”
Elections, he seemed to suddenly realize, are “really important.”