Young latinos power both Democrats in Nevada caucus campaign

A young woman on the phone at Hillary Clinton’s campaign office in Las Vegas, Nev., on Jan. 24. The fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination is giving a state’s Hispanics a chance to draw attention to their hardships and priorities. Isaac Brekken/The New York Times

LAS VEGAS, Nev. — Liz Hernandez learned what deportation was at age 5, when immigration officers burst into her home and hauled away her father and four uncles. Five years later, after a brief return to Mexico in a failed attempt to start a family farm, she and her mother, younger sister and infant brother crossed the desert headed north again in a sweltering van driven by smugglers.

Now 25, Hernandez is among the volunteers here for Sen. Bernie Sanders, seeing his presidential bid as “the best choice for our community and for the change we’ve been wanting to see,” as she put it between calls to voters from a campaign phone bank.

“I really do believe Bernie Sanders is concerned about me having a chance,” she said.

In the battle for Nevada, which will hold its Democratic caucuses on Saturday, the fight is largely being waged by young Latinos, many of them immigrants, who by the hundreds are seizing on the chance to focus attention on the hardships they have faced and to play a potentially pivotal role in electing the next president.

Sanders’ supporters, racing to persuade voters unfamiliar with the Vermont senator to embrace his focus on economic inequality, are determined to prove that he can win over a diverse electorate after taking New Hampshire and coming close in Iowa. Hillary Clinton’s supporters, drawing on a network of alliances she forged in the 2008 presidential campaign, are equally determined to bring Sanders’ political momentum to a screeching halt.

But for foreign-born voters and first-generation Americans, much more is at stake in Nevada than campaign gamesmanship.

With Republicans pledging to deport millions of people who are in the country illegally, and Donald J. Trump promising to build a wall to keep rapists and criminals from sneaking across the border from Mexico, volunteers and campaign workers describe the Nevada Democratic contest, in starkly personal terms, as a chance to make a powerful statement about the place they occupy in American society.

“I want people to know my story,” Hernandez said, tears streaking her cheeks as she acknowledged that she could not vote. “I want people to know that I am undocumented, and that when people talk about quote-unquote illegals, that’s someone like me, someone who was only 4 or 5 years old when I came here — that all my family ever wanted was something more than they had.”

For young Latinos in both candidates’ camps, the hardships the Democratic rivals increasingly speak to in their speeches — poverty, unemployment, discrimination and forced separation from loved ones — are all too familiar.

Leo Murrieta, 29, a precinct captain for Clinton who immigrated legally from Mexico as a week-old infant, said he and his mother, brother and sister all lost their jobs during the 2008 recession. They lost their North Las Vegas home to foreclosure, too, and survived on his father’s income as a school custodian. Adding to the family’s anxieties, he said, his brother- and sister-in-law are in the country illegally.

Murrieta said he had made thousands of calls for Clinton, and described the choice in the Democratic contest as between pie-in-the-sky idealism and a realistic expectation of progress.

“For me, promises don’t keep my family together,” he said. “Plans to get things done are what are going to keep my family together. I feel like Hillary feels that sense of urgency that a lot of us feel. And I don’t feel that from the other campaign.”

That urgency is fueling two extensive, dueling and largely bilingual statewide field operations — a necessity, experts say, given the large transient population and complexity of the caucus process in Nevada, where more than 1 in 4 residents are Hispanic.

Clinton opened her first campaign office in the state in April, six months before Sanders, and claims 7,000 volunteers to his 2,000. But Sanders aides said they were making up for the late start with Spanish- and English-language radio and TV commercials as well as online ads. Both are training caucusgoers and precinct leaders in Spanish and in English and holding events geared for Latino voters — including specific appeals to Hispanic high school students.

Still, Clinton’s Nevada operation is building on a foundation laid eight years ago, when she defeated Barack Obama in the popular vote (though he won the delegate count). Highlighting her record on education, health care and civil rights, her campaign holds a lopsided advantage over Sanders in Nevada in endorsements from Latino elected officials, community activists and prominent so-called Dreamers, who were brought illegally to the United States as children.

Sanders and Clinton will both appear Thursday in a televised forum on Telemundo and MSNBC. Each will probably face tough questions: Sanders about his vote against a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill in 2007, and Clinton for saying in 2014, amid a crisis in which thousands of Central American children crossed the border and wound up in detention, that they “should be sent back.”

But immigration is scarcely the only important issue.

At a training session for Clinton precinct captains last week in a heavily Latino neighborhood of Las Vegas, Alex Noriega, 23, said she became a Clinton supporter in 2008 because of Clinton’s support for women’s reproductive rights. Then 16, she recalled, she went to Planned Parenthood to get the Plan B medication to avoid a pregnancy after having unprotected sex and became convinced that the policies Clinton was advocating were essential for women to control their bodies.

Noriega said she was unimpressed by what she called the “radical” politics of Clinton’s current opponent. “I think Senator Sanders has an unrealistic view of how he wants to get things accomplished,” she said.

The candidates, who swept into Nevada over the weekend, made abundantly clear that first-generation voters and other Latinos could play a decisive role here. In Reno on Saturday, Sanders told hundreds of canvassers that he would push for a path to citizenship for the estimated 11 million people who are in the country illegally.

“I have met people throughout this campaign, young people with tears running down their cheeks, who are literally worried that they or their parents will be deported tomorrow, that they will be separated from their loved ones,” he said.

And he described himself in terms that any first-generation American could understand. “My dad came to this country at the age of 17 without a nickel in his pocket from Poland, couldn’t speak English, never made much money,” Sanders said. “But he was as proud an American as you have ever seen because he saw what America gave to him and his kids, the kind of freedom and opportunity it gave.”

Clinton has sought to diminish Sanders by casting his call for a political “revolution” to address economic inequality as an unrealistic obsession.

“Not everything is about an economic theory,” Clinton told hundreds of supporters from organized labor at a painters’ union hall Saturday night in Henderson, Nevada. “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow — and I will, if they deserve it; if they pose a systemic risk, I will — would that end racism?”

She added: “Will that make people feel more welcoming to immigrants overnight?”

By contrast, Clinton presented herself as a broader candidate, with the credibility to back up her promises.

“I am the only candidate who will take on every barrier to progress,” she said. “I am the only candidate that has a record of taking on those barriers. I am the only candidate who will stand with you in every single fight, no matter how hard it is or how long it takes.”

Clinton’s huge advantage in name recognition among Latinos continues to challenge Sanders’ campaign here.

When Sanders supporters set up an information table at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, last week, Santiago Gudiño-Rosales, 20, a freshman pre-med student, stood outside for hours handing out fliers.

Born in Mexico, he said he immigrated at 2 and became a citizen only in 2014, after hiding his identity for years out of fear that he would be unable to get an education. He said he believed Sanders would help millions of others like him become citizens, too.

“We as Latinos have to come out and realize he’s the only candidate who is going to help us get on that pathway we need to pursue a better life,” Gudiño-Rosales said.

But his path in aiding Sanders so far has been uphill, Gudiño-Rosales said. He has knocked on about 140 doors — but nearly every Latino voter he has canvassed, he said, has asked the same question:

“Who is Bernie Sanders?”

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