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Prologue: Goffstown, New Hampshire, the Saturday Before Christmas

On the carpeted floor of a frigid college hockey rink turned media center and spin room for the last Democratic debate of 2015, a former Chicago mayoral candidate of Mexican American descent is making the rounds with the few Spanish-language media in attendance.

Jesús “Chuy” García, fresh off a failed attempt to unseat incumbent mayor Rahm Emanuel, had traveled to the first-in-the-nation primary state for one reason: he had just become an official surrogate to the Bernie Sanders for President campaign.

Even though New Hampshire’s Latino population was only at 3%, the national endorsement push by the Sanders campaign to roll out prominent Latinos and try to neutralize Clinton’s growing list of Latino endorsements had officially begun.

In the bitter cold of Sullivan Arena, García worked the room, eager and cordial to talk to anyone. At night’s end, while a gaggle of reporters converged around other surrogates, an accessible García stood alone, next to a Sanders staffer holding a sign identifying his name.

What was a son of Illinois doing at a New England hockey rink?

Being thrust into the national political scene.

So when asked why García was supporting the Vermont senator, he began his pitch:

“Bernie Sanders represents the best opportunity for America to remake itself,” he told Latino USA. “The revolution that he talks about is about putting ordinary people first, about ensuring that there’s economic justice, that we do away with what has occurred over the past four decades where most Americans have seen their earnings drop in real wages. College has become something that’s very difficult to attain, and at the same time understand some of the real priorities in terms of achieving racial justice for minorities like Latinos and African Americans. I also am thrilled at the positions that he’s taken on comprehensive immigration reform. No other candidate has been as specific and as comprehensive as he has. So he clearly is the best choice for working families in the country.”

Weeks before Sanders produced strong results in both Iowa and New Hampshire earlier this year, on that cold night in December, García acknowledged that when it comes to Latino voters, the “Clinton brand” is strong:

“Obviously, the Clinton brand is a very well-known brand. People may not know exactly what Secretary Clinton stands for, but they’re familiar with the name, so the priority for the Sanders campaign moving forward is to get greater recognition.”

Latino signs of the “Clinton brand” were also visible that Saturday night in New Hampshire. While the Sanders campaign had a big city mayoral candidate, the Clinton campaign brought a 13-year veteran of the House and head of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Linda Sánchez of California, a state 2,500 miles away.

Sánchez’s message in the spin room was about how Clinton can “get things done,” especially for Latinos:

“If you look at Hillary Clinton’s ability to deliver, she’s the kind of leader that this country needs. Her entire career she has fought for issues that impact all working Americans, but in particular the Latino community. She knows how to navigate Washington, D.C. She knows how to get things done. She’s well-respected around the world and is the most competent and capable person of governing on day one. Her message resonates with my constituents, and it’s her message of ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to get ahead in this country.”

The message also did not lead with immigration:

“It isn’t just about immigration. It’s about economic security. It’s about national security. It’s about hope for the future to give your kids a better life than you had. I think voters respond to that.”

Sánchez’s words also implied a more cordial campaign, where Democrats do not attack other Democrats:

“Bernie has a sort of appealing message in that he has a very progressive message that resonates with a certain part of the electorate. But when you look at who can translate those progressive policies into actual legislation and actual policies that are going to pass, I think Hillary Clinton is far more capable. I think Latinos are going to respond to Hillary Clinton’s message about hope for the future and her specific proposals to give every American family the opportunity to do better. Not that Bernie’s a bad guy, but I think Hillary Clinton is far more capable. I think she’s the most competent candidate that stands on the stage.”

That December moment was just a microcosm for the last two Democratic campaigns left standing in 2016: the surge strategy to get as many Latino voices to endorse their respective candidates. With the Nevada Democratic Caucus this Saturday, the candidates look to more states where Latino voters can help sway the outcome. And as the pressure mounts, what started as a cordial campaign among Latino surrogates is now sharper.

The Numbers

If the Democratic outcome were based solely on who has the most number of Latino endorsements, the Clinton campaign would win in a landslide. According to the latest list provided to Latino USA by Hillary for America, the former Secretary of State’s list is a who’s who of the most prominent political Latinos of the last 20 years. It also includes celebrities Salma Hayek, Rosie Perez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin and Demi Lovato.

Endorsements for Hillary Clinton (2)

On the other hand, what the Sanders campaign lacks in numbers and political establishment recognition, it makes up with state-level and grassroots support. The list provided by the Sanders campaign also includes names like comedian George López and Calle 13’s Residente.

Endorsements for Sanders

The sheer volume of so many prominent Latinos supporting these two Democratic candidates so early and so visibly speaks to a bigger issue.

“It could have been 20 years ago when we got involved in a campaign, we were less significant in the whole realm of that campaign,” Clinton surrogate Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-CA) told Latino USA. “But that has changed. Everyone knows that the Latino vote could be the decisive vote in determining the next president because of where we’re located and whether we come out to vote. So that’s probably one of the reasons why you’ve seen the percolation of Latinos and the attention being given to Latinos a bit more.”

The national attention has clearly put the Latino vote in the spotlight. But can it have impact further down the ticket?

Lucy Flores, a former Nevada state assemblywoman who is running for Congress this year and also endorsing Sanders, hopes the Latino outreach can help her and other candidates in their races. One of Flores’ primary opponents for the Nevada congressional seat is state senator Rubén Kihuen, who has already endorsed Clinton.

“I would love for candidates, both in a presidential election and in any other election, to come to us and earn our support every cycle, not just every four years,” Flores said to Latino USA. “Because I think that is fundamentally the problem with voter engagement, Latino voter engagement and sustaining those kinds of voting levels. We start over with our community every four years, and frankly I’m tired of it and I know a lot of people are too. I think that a lot of it has to do with the fact that people are willing to jump on board so quickly.”

Immigration Still Dominates

Despite what campaign surrogates might say, immigration has quickly become a contrasting issue between Clinton and Sanders. The differences were in full view during the Wisconsin debate last Thursday, as the candidates had one of their more heated exchanges.

Clinton pointed out that in 2007 Sanders voted against the late Sen. Ted Kennedy’s immigration reform bill. Sanders admitted that he did not support the bill, but explained that the guest worker provisions amounted to what the Southern Poverty Law Center described then as “close to slavery.”

Gutiérrez: Sanders “Voted With Republicans”

This difference between Clinton and Sanders has become a contentious topic with Latino surrogates. Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-IL), who endorsed Clinton last December and is considered one of Capitol Hill’s most influential voices on immigration, said that Sanders’ presence on immigration “has been absent.”

“When I sat down with the Hillary campaign, I’ve had a relationship with her,” Gutiérrez told Latino USA. “For me, immigration has been the primary core issue that I’ve fought for. Can I tell you? Bernie Sanders has been absent.”

Rep. Luis Gutiérrez
Rep. Luis Gutiérrez

Gutiérrez said that he remembers 2007 “as if it were yesterday” and how he and other Democratic members went to the Senate floor and asked senators to at least vote on the bill so it can move on to the House.

“Bernie Sanders said no. He voted with the Republicans,” Gutiérrez said. “He didn’t vote to allow Senator Kennedy’s immigration bill to move forward. And then that night I remember seeing him on CNN with Lou Dobbs.”

When Sanders appeared on Dobbs’ show about a week before the Senate voted against the 2007 bill, he defended his position: “If poverty is increasing and if wages are going down, I don’t know why we need millions of people to be coming into this country as guest workers who will work for lower wages than American workers and drive wages down even lower than they are now.”

“Don’t pit one worker against the other. That’s the rhetoric I hear from the Republicans,” Gutiérrez said. “I’m just going to say this: Bernie stood with the Republicans.”

Becerra agreed with Gutiérrez about the 2007 vote: “Secretary Clinton has always stood up for immigrant families fleeing persecution and violence. She has firmly supported comprehensive immigration reform measures as far back as 2004. That was the year she sponsored Senator Ted Kennedy’s bill, then worked with Senator Kennedy and voted for his bill in 2007. The same cannot be said for Senator Sanders. He voted against Senator Kennedy’s comprehensive immigration reform bill in 2007.”

However, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-AZ), who has endorsed Sanders, respectfully disagreed with his two House colleagues.

“I would have voted against the 2007 bill,” Grijalva told Latino USA. “Let me tell you why: in that piece of legislation was a guest worker program that created two tiers of workers: one tier without any protections, without any minimum wage guarantees, without the ability to ever leave the job they were assigned to and with no path to permanent legal status and a work permit in this country. That was the guest worker program: opposed by the unions unanimously, the Southern Poverty Law Center, human rights and civil organizations—so that was a gimme to an industry that wanted to have a lower class of workers that they paid less to, depressed wages for other workers, and I would have voted against that as well and there were a lot of people who did. It is disingenuous to say that Bernie voted against Kennedy and against immigration reform.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva
Rep. Raúl Grijalva

In fact, Grijalva said, if Clinton’s Latino Democratic supporters are going to bring up the 2007 immigration bill, they should not ignore the Illegal Immigrant Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996, which passed a Republican-majority Congress and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.

“There’s no guilt by association here for Hillary,” Grijalva said. “She was in the White House, but she hasn’t repudiated the 3- and 10-year bars. She hasn’t repudiated the deportation policy that became harsher and harsher. There’s a general agreement among all of us, whether they are either for Hillary or for Bernie, is that the current immigration enforcement policy is all we’ve received: from deportation to massive detention and no progress on any real comprehensive immigration reform that deals with DREAMers, with young people and with family reunification. Now, are we going to lay that on the feet of Bernie Sanders? We can lay that same lack of progress on the feet of Hillary Clinton.”

The “3/10 year bars” have become a concern to many immigration rights groups. According to the American Immigration Council, “thousands of people who qualify for green cards based on their relationships to U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident relatives leave the U.S. to obtain their green card are caught in a Catch-22—under current law they must leave the country to apply for their green card abroad, but as soon as they leave, they are immediately barred from re-entering the U.S. for three or ten years.”

The Clinton campaign’s official immigration plan makes no mention of the 1996 bill nor its specific provisions. While Clinton’s plan calls  for “humane, targeted immigration enforcement,” promising to “do everything possible under the law to go further to protect families” and put an end to family detention, it does not offer detailed proposals, including what to do with the “3/10 year bars.” Sanders’ immigration plan includes many of Clinton’s points, but provides more specifics, including the call for an end to the “3/10 year bars” measure. Nonetheless, as a member of the House in 1996, Sanders voted for the bill.

A 1996 clip of then First Lady Clinton provided some of her early views on immigration reform. In this clip, Clinton calls for both border enforcement and support for children of undocumented parents.

“1996 was that beginning of this whole deportation enforcement-only mentality,” Grijalva added. “I think if we want to get into the nuances of those bills, we should. But to make general categorical statements is disingenuous. It might sound nice at a rally, but it doesn’t reek of truth.”

Nonetheless, Gutiérrez still believes that Sanders has not been a true champion of immigration reform and said that the Vermont senator only began to focus on the issue last summer when Gutiérrez called him out on it.

“Bernie is good at talking about workers and wage inequality, except when it comes to Latinos and to immigrants,” Gutiérrez told Latino USA. “You want to look at who the weakest worker is? Who the most exploited worker is? Which worker needs the most protection and help? It’s the undocumented worker. I’ve been out there. I see the women. I know the kind of sexual abuse and exploitation that they suffer because they don’t have papers. So, Bernie, get on board. There’s another community out there. And I’m happy that now he’s changed his discourse and included us. Welcome.”

Gutiérrez also noted that Sanders is another example of a politician who has suddenly discovered the Latino community.

“Bernie’s a reflection of where Democrats were before, where liberals were before,” Gutiérrez said. “Many of us didn’t see our issue as a primary issue in terms of their agenda. Hillary has. She voted for Kennedy’s bill. I have a relationship with her.”

Grijalva, however, thinks otherwise:

“To make immigration the battering ram with this election with both positions, I think Bernie’s plan is superior,” he explained. “That is what we’re looking for: somebody who’s not afraid to put their position out in public. Somebody’s who not afraid to deal with this issue head on. And Bernie does it in front of any audience, whether it’s predominantly white or not. He does not change his tune. He does not slip up on immigration, and that’s one of the reasons that I support him.”

Grijalva also added that the immigration talking points from Clinton’s Latino surrogates has done nothing to elevate the dialogue:

“The talking point that [Sanders] hasn’t been there with us cheapens the debate on immigration. That cheapens the debate on where we need to be as a community.”

The Central America Migrant Crisis

Grijalva is also quick to point out that Clinton’s position on the current Central American migrant crisis and the recent calls by the Obama administration to increase deportation raids does not reflect the views of progressive Latinos.

“I think the Hillary campaign completely misread that,” Grijalva said. “People might be third- or fourth-generation Latino in this country, but they understand the connection between that treatment in Central America and the overall civil rights for everybody else. I think it was horribly misread.”

Clinton’s immigration critics keep using a 2014 CNN clip where she initially addressed the unaccompanied minor crisis and said the following: “They should be sent back as soon as it can be determined who responsible adults in their families are, because – there are concerns about whether all of them can be sent back, but I think all of them that can be should be reunited with their families….We have to send a clear message: Just because your child gets across the border, that doesn’t mean the child gets to stay. So we don’t want to send a message that is contrary to our laws or willing to encourage more children to make that dangerous journey.”

After both Sanders and former candidate Martin O’Malley issued statements about the new deportation raids, a Clinton campaign spokesperson said Clinton was also against the raids. During the January Black and Brown Forum, Clinton clarified her position with journalist Jorge Ramos:

Becerra said he sides with Clinton on this issue: “I agree with Secretary Clinton that we have a moral responsibility to treat immigrants, especially women and children, who are fleeing violence and are in fear of their lives with care and compassion. The administration must take all steps to provide due process under our laws and do what is in the best interest of a child in determining refugee and asylum status. We must never let vulnerable children seeking protection to stand in court alone.”

So does Gutiérrez, who has been a very vocal critic of the Obama administration on this issue:

“Look at Hillary Clinton. She not only said to stop the deportations, she said, ‘Let’s rethink refugee status in the United States. Let’s put centers in Honduras and in other Central American countries. Let’s get the State Department and the United Nations involved in this.'” Gutiérrez said. “She said to open up new centers where we can receive them in the United States. So, if you look at the responses, the most holistic response was that of Hillary Clinton. I will take that holistic response.”

Grijalva said he will always side with Sanders on this issue.

“I admire the President standing up for the Syrian refugees, like our community did too and I did too,” Grijalva said, “but I think the status for these refugees coming from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador merit the same kind of humanity and that same equal application of that law. And that’s all Bernie is saying. They’re refugees and they must be treated that way.”

Gutiérrez believes the Clinton’s “holistic response” is just part of the bigger prize for him: citizenship for the country’s undocumented population:

“Here’s what did it for me: we’re going to make citizenship a priority in the next administration. We’ve got to take our 9 million immigrants in this country to become citizens and we need a program that’s going to encourage them, help them, going to facilitate their passage to citizenship. Because for me, that’s one of the greatest legacies I can leave behind. People with power. People with the power to vote. People with the power to change and transform our society on a permanent basis. And Hillary Clinton is going to make sure that gets done.”

On the Ground in Nevada

In the final days before the Nevada Caucus, polls suggest yet another close race, with Latino voters expected to determine who wins Saturday’s contest.

“What I am finding and there’s a buzz to it is this: Latinos are being more discerning,” Becerra said. “They’re not just saying, ‘Okay, my party is there, so that’s where I’m going to go,’ or ‘That’s what the polls are going, that’s where I’m going to go,” no. They’re saying, ‘Show me. Prove it to me. Why?’ And I love that because we can’t be taken for granted. Latinos are looking at this election closer. What I hope that means is that they are recognizing the value of their vote.”

Becerra, who is from neighboring California, firmly believes that Clinton’s Latino support will propel her to victory this Saturday. In 2008, Clinton won Nevada by nearly six points.

Rep. Xavier Becerra
Rep. Xavier Becerra

“Having more years under my belt, being able to have a network that I can bring to the table and hopefully help somebody as a candidate, now it makes more of a difference,” Becerra said. “As it turns out, I feel far more liberated than I felt 10 years ago, because now I want to make a decision based on what I want to do. When I came out early for Hillary Clinton, I said, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to do.'”

Flores, the former Nevada assemblywoman who many see as a rising start in Democratic circles, has seen more support for Sanders in the predominantly Latino neighborhoods she has represented.

“Senator Sanders has done such an incredible job of convincing and getting support, once people find out who he is, what he stands for and what he’s fighting for. That’s what I see on the ground,” Flores said.

Lucy Flores
Lucy Flores

“Also, those folks who think they’re decided, once they find out and they feel like they have a real choice, I have found that they want to exercise that choice,” Flores added. “And I think that’s a beautiful thing. I think that’s what democracy is all about, and that’s why I think he is going to not only have a chance with Latinos, but he has an opportunity to do very well with Latinos because I really feel that they’re hungry for a choice.”

When Becerra stumps for Clinton in Nevada or anywhere else, he makes sure to share a common expression in Spanish: “Dime con quién andas y te diré quién eres.” (“Tell me with whom you walk with and I will tell you who you are.”)

“To me that says it all. If I’m going to stand by an issue, if I’m going to get behind a candidate, I’ve got to truly believe that I’m doing this for the right reasons,” Becerra said.

“Hillary’s got a record. She’s been tested. And I like knowing that I’ll have a president who gets things done,” Becerra added. “To me, if someone asks me, ‘¿Dime con quién andas?’ I feel proud to say, ‘Yo ando con Hillary Clinton.’ ‘I walk with Hillary Clinton.'”

Nonetheless, Grijalva, who has also made Nevada appearances for Sanders, thinks the Clinton campaign’s characterization that Sanders has not been with the Latino community is just another narrative not based in reality.

“I think that after Nevada, the ‘he’s not with us’ narrative is going to start to die as well,” Grijalva said.