By JUDITH JOFFE-BLOCK
As the mother of a District 9 candidate in the supervisor’s race, Clara Quezada knows who is getting her vote. But when it comes to the presidential election, the choice is more complicated.
Quezada, who came to this country from Guatemala as a child, hoped to vote for the contender who would grant amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. But neither major party candidate has endorsed such a plan.
“I don’t like any candidate, for this reason. I said before that I wasn’t going to vote,” said the 66-year-old Mission resident. Nevertheless, she is now leaning toward Democrat Barack Obama.
Few disagree that Barack Obama will prevail in the Mission, which the Progressive Voter Index recently named the city’s most progressive neighborhood. Furthermore, a Pew Hispanic Center poll published in July showed Obama leading among Latinos nationwide with 66 percent support compared to 23 percent for Republican candidate John McCain.
But when both parties’ conventions came and went without either candidate elaborating on immigration policy, it prompted a range of reactions among voters in the Mission, where about 45 percent of the 62,000 residents were born outside of the United States—most in Latin America. Many of these Latinos offered a more nuanced view of the candidates than national polls might suggest.
“We are not united as immigrants,” said Maria Eugenia Sarti, who has run citizenship classes at the community organization Centro Latino for eight years.
The number one reason her students seek citizenship, she said, was to vote. But she noted that immigrants are divided, even when it comes to immigration policy.
Sarti coordinates Spanish-language voting workshops with the city’s Department of Elections, and has overheard the political views of the mostly Central American-born voters who come through the Centro.
She has met plenty of Obama supporters, but she has heard others worry about his ability to help Latinos or fix the economy.
Sarti said that Black-Latino tensions may be particularly potent in San Francisco, and could affect Latinos’ perceptions of Obama.
“They remember Willie Brown and were very unhappy with him,” said Sarti referring to the former African American mayor who was in office from 1996 to 2004. Latinos “think maybe [Obama] will be like him,” she added.
Sarti also said that some Republicans switched parties to vote for Hillary Clinton in the primary and are now disenchanted with the Democrats. Others, she said, are impressed by McCain’s military service.
Such divisions are evident at Café La Boheme, where a rotating cast of men from all over the Bay Area congregate to joke in their native Spanish, drink coffee, and admire the women walking down 24th Street. Though the men are all from the Caribbean and Central America, their political philosophies have little in common.
When Jose Martinez, a Puerto Rico-born custodian at San Francisco’s School of the Arts, announced his plans to vote for Obama, a cluster of his Cuban friends responded by loudly chanting the name of their preferred candidate–McCain.
Illegal immigration is also controversial among this crowd, with some saying that undocumented immigrants drive down wages and create too much competition for jobs.
One Cuban-born man who declined to give his name said he doesn’t think those who entered the country illegally should expect rights since they violated the law.
Rene McLean, who legally immigrated from Nicaragua, disagreed.
“They should leave the people who are already here alone, unless they are criminals,” McLean said in Spanish.
Like Quezada, McLean is a naturalized citizen but is contemplating abstaining from voting since neither candidate favors amnesty for undocumented immigrants.
Though McCain worked closely with Massachussetts Senator Ted Kennedy on a comprehensive immigration reform effort in 2006, he has since distanced himself from the bill he helped craft. His speech at the Republican convention in St. Paul failed to mention immigration directly.
Instead, he talked about the right to opportunities, “from the boy whose descendants arrived on the Mayflower to the Latina daughter of migrant workers.”
For his part, Obama acknowledged at his party’s convention that “passions fly on immigration,” but added, “I don’t know anyone who benefits when a mother is separated from her infant child or an employer undercuts American wages by hiring illegal workers.”
Some of Obama’s supporters defended his vague remarks on immigration policy.
“It’s complicated,” said Obama supporter Bernardo Mayor in Spanish.
The 52-year-old immigrated from Nicaragua 17 years ago and now works in hotels. “He can’t just promise everyone he will give them papers,” said Mayor.
Others expressed disillusionment with both candidates.
Gerardo Sanchez, who immigrated from Mexico in 1985, cannot vote as a legal resident, but said both candidates support the creation of a guest-worker program and that means he won’t be rooting for either one.
The 45-year-old meatpacker believes that such a program will drive down labor standards, lead to the exploitation of immigrant workers, divide workers and be used to prevent unionization.
For some born in Latin America, US foreign policy toward their home countries guides their vote.
Roberto Tellez, a 68-year-old tax preparer from Nicaragua, has voted Republican since he became a citizen 25 years ago. Back then he chose the G.O.P. because he disagreed with former Democratic President Jimmy Carter’s foreign policy toward his home country.
Denilo Pedrozoso, who works at the Mission Neighborhood Resource Council, is a legal resident who usually aligns himself with the Republican party. But he likes that Obama favors easing restrictions on family visits and remittances to Cuba.
Both candidates are spending record resources to court Latino voters. The Democratic National Committee recently committed $20 million to register Latino voters in swing states. Though the McCain campaign has not released the dollar amount it will spend, the campaign is designating significant funds toward Spanish-language advertising in battleground states.
California, a firmly Democratic state, won’t be the target of either campaigns’ attention, but local volunteers are working to reach naturalized citizens–a group that the Migration Policy Institute estimates to be 20 percent of the state’s pool of eligible voters.
Twice a month, Republican and Democratic volunteers set up voter registration tables outside of the citizenship ceremonies at the Masonic Auditorium to add new citizens to their party ranks. Victor Aguila, a former chairman for the Northern California chapter of the Hispanic Republican National Assembly, is a regular at the Republican table.
Aguila, 68, who immigrated to Marin County from Mexico City 30 years ago, likes to remind voters of McCain’s work on immigration reform in the U.S. Senate. He says naturalized Latino voters often register as Democrats without adequately studying the issues.
“They see the word ‘Democrat’ and they think of democracy,” said Aguila in Spanish, pointing out that many of these voters fled Latin American dictatorships in search of American democracy.
He thinks more Latinos would vote Republican if they understood that the party stood for conservative social values and small government.
That is why, in addition to voter registration, he and other in his party are organizing door knocking and phone-banking efforts in the region’s Latino neighborhoods.
“We know we aren’t going to win,” he said about the Bay Area vote. “But we are going to try and get the registered Republicans to vote and the registered Democrats to switch parties.”