Immigration Advocates Speak Out in Cleveland

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Tania Unzueta of the group Mijente leads a rally in Cleveland's Public Square on Wednesday, after participants in the "Wall Off Trump" protest end their march by the perimeter of the Republican National Convention.

Fear of illegal immigration has dominated the Republican National Convention this week, but outside the high fences and concrete barricades that surround Cleveland’s Quicken Loans Arena, Latino and immigrant advocates have been making their voices heard.

A high point for immigrant advocates came Wednesday, when hundreds of activists gathered for a visually dramatic “Wall Off Trump” demonstration. Draped in sheets painted with red bricks, activists formed a human wall of their own, linking arms and chanting pro-immigration slogans.

It was a satirical rebuke to Trump’s campaign pledge to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and to make Mexico pay for it. The demonstration, which drew broad media coverage, pushed back against the anti-immigrant rhetoric inside the arena, particularly in the speeches delivered Monday night, when the theme was “Make America Safe Again.”

“I came out to support the rights of immigrants, and to show that we’re a country based on love, not hate,” said demonstrator Jillian Severinski, who, despite the heat, was still wearing her portion of the “wall” after the group had made its way to Public Square, the epicenter of this week’s protest action.

The “Wall Off Trump” demonstration was organized by multiple groups, including the Ruckus Society and Mijente, a national network of Latino activists. Protesters kicked off the action by winding their way through Cleveland streets, singing, “The walls that they build, to tear us apart, will never be as strong as the walls of our heart.” Demonstrators came from across the country, and spent the past week painting the brick-covered sheet ponchos at the Cleveland Masonic Temple. The project was funded by an Indiegogo campaign that netted $15,000 from hundreds of individual donors.

The goal in part was to ensure that Latino voters turn out in November, something that immigration activists acknowledge has been a challenge. At a panel discussion on Latino civic engagement earlier in the week, organizers pointed to flagging Latino turnout in previous elections.

“Fifty-one percent of Latino adult U.S. citizens have never voted or consistently don’t vote,” said panelist Arturo Vargas, the executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) Education Fund. “This is the heavy lift. This is where our political system gets lazy. We need to create a fully engaged Latino electorate that participates.”

(Photo: Amanda Teuscher)

Jillian Severinski of Cleveland displays her portion of the "wall" that protesters formed by holding hands on Wednesday during the Republican National Convention.

Voting barriers present another challenge, said Laura Maristany, NALEO’s director of legislative and policy affairs. She pointed to the Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which struck down the preclearance provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Nevertheless, organizers said, the number of Latino voters is set to increase dramatically in the upcoming election.

Vargas said Latino voter turnout will reach “13.1 million at least” come November. “That’s four million more Latinos eligible to vote since the last presidential election. About 3.2 million of them are simply Latinos who turned 18 between 2012 and 2016.”

Vargas added that this number projects a minimum turnout threshold based on demographic trends, and does not even take into account political factors special to 2016—most notably, opposition to Trump—that he said will mobilize eligible voters to come out in even greater numbers. A quick Latino Decisions poll of Latino voters after Monday night’s program found that nearly 80 percent viewed the Republican nominee unfavorably.

 

It’s easy to see why. In addition to his pledges to build a wall, Trump has called Latinos “criminals” and “rapists,” and GOP convention speakers have echoed his inflammatory talking points. Three of Monday night’s speakers told of family members killed by undocumented immigrants, and the convention also featured a live video feed featuring the family of a Border Patrol agent who was killed at the border.

“My son’s life was stolen at the hands of an illegal alien,” said Mary Ann Mendoza, whose son was killed in a car accident involving an undocumented immigrant, from the podium on Monday night. “It is time that we have an administration that cares more about Americans than about illegals.”

The speeches, however heartfelt, cemented perceptions that the Trump campaign is based on fear of immigrants, and relies overwhelmingly on white voters. As the Prospect has reported, Trump’s controversial comments have galvanized the politically powerful Latino electorate, which political analysts on both sides of the aisle argue a candidate cannot afford to ignore if he or she plans to win the presidency.

Wednesday’s “Wall Off Trump” rally came amid growing tensions at Cleveland’s Public Square, which has been a colorful if predominately civil scene for the past few days, with protesters and onlookers moving among photographers and reporters, and often avoiding collisions with opposing activists, as dozens of police officers struggled to block agitators from one another. (A scuffle following one activist’s attempt to burn an American flag near the arena’s entrance Wednesday ended with several arrests, a tense moment in a week marked by otherwise peaceful protests.)

“Wall Off Trump” organizers had been in the square for just a short time before they were abruptly joined by a small group of religious protesters, who kicked their water bottles away and brandished signs bearing passages of Bible scripture and messages like “Got Aids Yet?” in an acrostic that read GAY. Police officers quickly interceded, forming a tight double-wall between the men and the rest of the square, where a pro-choice rally was taking place at the Speaker’s Platform.

Nearby, Patti Grigutis and Tammy Davis, wearing “Trump/Pence” shirts, were watching the action. They had come in from Chicago just for the day to be part of what they said was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. They said they supported the building of a border wall, and were voting for Trump because they believed he could help “straighten out” the Veterans Administration and better help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. They were members of the American Legion Riders, and said that just last year a 27-year-old veteran in their chapter had committed suicide, and the pain was still fresh. “It’s so important that these guys can get the help they need,” Grigutis said. They shook their heads in disagreement at the ultra-religious signs.

Members of the “Wall Off Trump” group dispersed quickly at the arrival of the new protesters, but they voiced confidence that their demonstration had been a success. “I think it’s important to fight off hate,” said Hernàn Gomez, who came from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to help Mijente and be a part of the demonstration.

And Latinos protesting Wednesday said the action doesn’t end with Cleveland. Lead “Wall Off Trump” organizer Tania Unzueta of Mijente said the group will also be going to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention next week.

“It’s not enough to not be Trump,” said Unzueta. The Mijente group grew out of a campaign called Not One More Deportation to protest the Obama administration’s record number of deportations. Unzueta said she is concerned that Hillary Clinton, if elected, would continue Obama’s deportation policies. Indeed, one of the chants of the “Wall Off Trump” supporters was “Up up for liberation, down down with deportation!”

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