Marcos Marte supported Sen. Bernie Sanders in 2016. But after the bitter Democratic primary that left Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential nominee, the son of Dominican immigrants cast his ballot for Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
This year, Marte, 27, of Union City, New Jersey, will complete an even longer political journey: He's voting for President Donald Trump, attracted by the Republican Party's "Judeo-Christian" values and the president's economic record before the coronavirus hit. He says he also likes Trump's plans for securing the southern border and restricting illegal immigration.
“We have to elevate ourselves and I think Donald Trump is the only president that I’ve seen in my adult life that is putting America’s citizens' values front forward," said Marte, who works in the banking industry. "No matter what, we can still get out of where we are and empower ourselves to make our lives better ... He is putting that right in front of us.”
Marte is a member of what may be the most surprising voting bloc in 2020: Latinos who say they're backing Trump despite four years of restrictive immigration policies and what many call racist invective aimed toward Hispanic people. From the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump warned of rapists and drug dealers streaming over the border from Mexico. In the White House, he's moved to curb both legal and illegal immigration and questioned why the U.S. should take in people from "s---hole countries" like El Salvador and Haiti.
Yet Trump received between 20 to 28% of the Latino vote in 2016, according to various exit polls, and he's poised to get around the same in 2020. One Quinnipiac University poll last month had Trump leading Joe Biden among Latinos in the battleground state of Florida by 45% to 43%, though the difference was within the margin of error.
“I haven’t seen any data to suggest that his numbers among Latinos are better than in 2016, but what surprises me is that they are not worse,’’ said Adrian Pantoja, a senior analyst for polling firm Latino Decisions and professor of political and Chicano studies at Pitzer College in California.
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Latinos are not monolithic, of course. A 2018 national survey from the Pew Research Center found that voters of Puerto Rican and Mexican backgrounds were more likely to be Democrats, while those of Cuban descent, who fled Fidel Castro's communist dictatorship, leaned Republican.
In interviews, Latinos who back Trump cite the president's business background and the record employment numbers for Black and Hispanic Americans before the pandemic. They like the take-no-prisoners "energy" he brings to the office, even if that combative style has turned off other voters.
Fernando Alonso, an attorney from Oradell, New Jersey, whose parents emigrated from Cuba decades ago, said the violence that's broken out at some racial justice protests has also turned off voters who may have memories of unstable, violent regimes in their home countries. Trump has blamed the unrest on Democrats.
"Safety is really important to them," said Alonso, who leads the Bergen County (New Jersey) Hispanic Republican Association. "When they see those things on television, the riots, it’s not something they came to the United States to be part of.”
Economy is a big issue
Latinos make up the largest minority voting group in the country, with 32 million projected to be eligible to vote in next month’s election.
Biden is expected to easily win a majority of Hispanic voters nationwide. A Pew survey released earlier this month found him leading among registered Hispanic voters 63% to 29%.
Still, the president has supporters like Kennith Gonzalez, 19, whose father escaped Cuba on a raft he built in 1994. Gonzalez, a product of the Cuban American community that's flourished in and around Union City, will vote in his first presidential election next month and cast his ballot for Trump.
A political science student at Seton Hall University, Gonzalez said Latinos he speaks to often cite the economy as their main issue, and he points to the improved jobless rate as well as gains in the stock market during Trump's first term.
Unemployment for Hispanics in the U.S. fell to a record low 3.9% in September 2019. That soared to 18.9% in July and stood at 10.3% last month, as the economic crisis sparked by the pandemic hit Black and Latino communities particularly hard.
But Gonzalez said Trump shouldn't be blamed for that fallout: "A majority of Hispanics come here for better economic opportunity and that is what they have received under Trump."
Gonzalez said he's in favor of immigration reform that would make it easier for people to come to the United States lawfully, acknowledging that the country’s current system forces many to wait years before they can become legal residents.
But Trump wasn’t entirely wrong when he spoke of some undocumented immigrants being criminals, said Gonzalez, who chairs Union City's Republican Committee. Even undocumented immigrants he knows are frustrated with the lawbreakers in their community, he said.
“If you go and speak to somebody who is not here legally, who works and pays taxes and really loves America and really loves what we stand for, they are very angry at the reputation that illegal immigrants have here in America," he said. “We need people in here that are going to help America thrive and not hold America down.”
Denise Gonzalez (no relation to Kennith) said most of her life she was a “closeted Republican,’’ hiding her allegiance from Puerto Rican relatives who usually vote Democratic. The retired Marine from Sicklerville, in Camden County, New Jersey, said she has always been in tune with the Republican platforms of smaller government and describes herself as a staunch constitutionalist. She voted for Trump in 2016 and will back him this year as well.
The mortgage loan officer credits the president for bills passed this spring to give businesses and families $2 trillion in coronavirus relief, money that helped keep millions of employees on payrolls nationwide.
“He has done more for people of color and for Americans in general,’’ she said.
Trump may not be an “eloquent orator,’’ Gonzalez said, but she defended him against critics who call him racist. That's partly based on her experience more than 20 years ago, when she worked as a bartender at one of Trump’s casinos in Atlantic City.
“I’ve met him personally and many of his executives were extremely diverse,’’ she said. “Trump used to show up on his properties and would ask people at the bottom of the totem pole what can we do for you, how can we help you, how can we make your job easier? He cares.”
Marte said he was more interested four years ago in how he would pay for college. That led him to Sanders, who ran on lowering student loan interest rates and free tuition for state colleges and universities.
Now, other issues have become important to him. He supports Trump’s plan to build a wall along the Mexican border to stop sex trafficking and drug smuggling. Even under Trump’s stricter immigration policies, he said, members of his extended family have been able to move to the United States legally.
“All of them are working, all of them have their apartments, all of them have provided for themselves, so for anyone to say that the American dream is gone, it’s sad to say, because I’ve witnessed people who have immigrated to this country,’’ he said.
Monsy Alvarado is the immigration reporter for NorthJersey.com. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @monsyalvarado
This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Latinos for Trump: Why these NJ Latinos are voting for Trump