Of the tens of thousands of this year’s new Hispanic voters heading to the polls in Florida , none will appreciate the experience more than Thomas Kennedy. As an onlooker to Florida’s political process during his 11 years as an undocumented immigrant living in Miami, he yearned to have his voice heard, yet was powerless to participate.
His marriage in 2011 to his American girlfriend put Kennedy on the path to US citizenship and his first voter’s card, a privilege he says he is looking forward to exercising by backing a candidate sympathetic to the challenges facing the city’s sizeable Latino population.
But he said he was sad that many Hispanic voters’ first experience of the ballot box in Tuesday’s Florida primary will be in a campaign scarred by violence and what he sees as vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“It’s a shame it’s in such a divisive and hateful environment,” he said. “I really wish I could look at the candidates and say I like this one, that one said this, everyone has their own thing to bring to the political discourse and I can pick the one I like the most. But it’s not the case.”
Kennedy, 25, said he sees similar frustrations every day in his work for New Florida Majority, a grassroots advocacy group in Miami that gives voice to immigrant families and helps them register to vote.
Latinos are scared and a lot of people feel they’ve been disenfranchised by the system.
Ahead of the primary, the group had achieved an initial target of 1,000 new voters and is looking to register 5,000 more every two months until November’s general election.
“I see a lot of people, especially Latinos, very energised,” said Kennedy, who says he was brought to the US from Argentina as a 10-year-old by parents who intentionally overstayed their tourist visas. “People are like, ‘I’m going to vote for the first time because there’s a lot of anti-immigrant talk that’s got me freaked out. I’m not going to let this happen.’
“Latinos are scared and a lot of people feel they’ve been disenfranchised by the system. They ask, what will voting do for them? But that’s what we’re out there for, to educate them on the issues.
“We tell them make the choice that’s in the interest of your community. It’s personal this time, you know.”
Liz Taveras, 26, a voter of Cuban-Dominican origin, believes the Republican side of today’s primary is essentially a referendum on racism. “We’re trying to create a better future for our children and that includes not living in a world where hateful words are allowed to be spewed on large platforms like Trump has,” she said.
“As a Latino woman of colour, immigration is one of my biggest concerns,” Taveras said. “Trump believes in building walls and that’s a punitive measure, not a solution. The Hispanic vote is a huge influence – they’re the people that can shift the political landscape.”
According to the Florida division of elections, a record 1.8 million Hispanic voters are registered for the 2016 primaries statewide out of a total voting population of 12 million, reflecting the smaller-scale success of Kennedy’s group.
By contrast, 1.66 million Hispanic voters were registered in Florida for the 2012 general election, in which Barack Obama carried the state by 76,000 votes, including 60% of the Hispanic vote, over Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
Amid the jumble of numbers that came from last week’s Pew Research Center report into Hispanic voters in Florida were some notable facts. One was that the Cuban American voting bloc in Miami now makes up less than a third of the state’s Latino voters, continuing a slide from 46% in 1990.
Another was that 88% of the growth in registered Democratic party voters from 2006 to 2016 was due to Hispanic voters. In central Florida in particular, Puerto Rican families, who are US citizens, are still arriving at a rate of 1,000 a month to escape the economic crisis in their homeland , and the more than 200,000 Puerto Rican voters in Orange and Osceola counties alone have the potential to tip Florida – a crucial swing state to both party’s hopes of winning the White House in November.
My parents are leaning Republican, they’re a little more hardline, but I haven’t made up my mind. I’m hearing people out
The shrinking of the Cuban vote in south Florida poses a particular problem for the Republican Party, which has always been able to rely on the support of hardline exiles. The same Cuban support swept Marco Rubio to Washington in 2010, but in primary opinion polls, the hometown senatorcouldn’t even scratch out a double-digit lead over Trump.
The lukewarm support can be partly explained by the attitude of first-time voters like Claudia Herbello, a 23-year-old law student at Florida International University, Miami (FIU), who are taking time to explore the issues and weigh the candidates’ positions before making a decision that was to previous generations automatic.
“Being at university, having all these different perspectives and having all these people talking to you helps shape your mind,” said Herbello, a first-generation Cuban American born in Miami to Cuban immigrant parents.
“My parents are leaning Republican. They’re a little more hardline, but I haven’t made up my mind. I’m hearing people out. Immigration’s a big issue. I come from a Cuban background, but I’m also worried about the economy, and how it will play out when the next president is elected. Abortion is an issue, too. I’m pro-choice.”
Herbello’s classmate, Diana Rafael, 24, another law student with Cuban immigrant parents, has also not decided whom to support, “but it won’t be anyone in the Republican Party”, she said.
“It’s because of everything that’s been going on with Donald Trump. Even if there was a small chance I could vote that way, there’s none now, so for me it’s between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.”
The Pew figures also point to a surge in more liberal attitudes among Latino voters.
Since 2006, the number of registered Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County who identify themselves as Democratic has risen 62% to 213,000, while the total of Republican-registered Hispanics has remained constant at about 260,000.
The Republican party acknowledged the crisis caused by the collapse of its Hispanic support base in its 2013 growth and opportunity project, the official inquest into Romney’s general election defeat the year before.
“If Hispanic Americans hear that the GOP doesn’t want them in the United States, they won’t pay attention to our next sentence,” the report stated. “It doesn’t matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think that we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.”
Yet outreach efforts by the Republicans, especially along Florida’s I-4 corridor, which includes substantial Hispanic populations in and around Tampa and Orlando, have been blunted by the fiery anti-immigration rhetoric of their candidates and voter registration has in effect been flat.
Trump branded Mexican immigrants “rapists” who were “bringing drugs” into the country; Ted Cruz, who has a Cuban father, opposed Obama’s deportation amnesty and Rubio, born in Miami to Cuban parents, is known for flip-flopping over a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Only John Kasich has made sympathetic noises – and he was polling a distant fourth in Florida as primary day dawned.
It has resonated badly with many pockets of Florida’s Hispanic voters, especially the 42% who are not Cuban or Puerto Rican and who do not enjoy a fast track towards US citizenship or are not already citizens. Large numbers of Mexicans, Venezuelans, Colombians and Nicaraguans, among others, also populate south Florida.
“I’m independent and go more to see what each candidate has to offer rather than what each party is about, but I’m leaning more away from the Republican Party because of who the likely candidate will be,” said Sandra Ramirez, 26, who was born in Mexico City to an American mother and came to live in Miami six years ago.
“He’s not been consistent and he’s not what an American should stand for,” she said of Trump.
To Henry Muñoz, the Mexican-American finance chair of the Democratic National Committee, the diversity of voters will ultimately decide which candidates are successful in the state.
“The Hispanic community of Florida is a fast-growing community,” he said.
“The population of Florida is evolving and changing. Almost 200,000 new Latino voices in the I-4 corridor represent important ideas, opportunities and the American dream. Every four years, someone writes a story about [how] the Hispanic community is a sleeping giant. The difference is in the last four years, we haven’t really been asleep. We have been organising ourselves, talking with each other about how important it is to keep engaged.”