Originally published by The Huffington Post
A small shrine with fresh marigolds and votive candles marks the spot where immigrants Marcelina and Santos Garcia were killed on March 13.
The couple, of Mixtec Indian origin, had emigrated to California’s Central Valley from a rural region in Mexico where family values are strong. Like so many other immigrants, they built a life in Delano, a city of 53,000 that’s about 140 miles north of Los Angeles. There, they worked in the world’s most productive farm industry, in its vast sea of grape vines, fruit trees and multi-seasonal crops. But early that March morning, as the Garcias drove through town, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents closed in on their SUV.
Attempting to evade agents, the undocumented couple sped down a country road. The vehicle went out of control and crashed into a pole and rolled over, killing the Garcias, who never knew that ICE was looking for Santos’ brother, not for them.
The Garcias’ deaths left their six children, who are not all U.S. citizens, orphaned. And in Delano—where in 1965 the United Farm Workers first carved their place in history—anger and fear about what happened has added urgency and upped the stakes for the midterm election occurring Tuesday.
“This has been huge wake-up call for the Latino community,” said Yazmin Hernandez, 22, a graduate of Fresno State University who helps legal permanent-resident immigrants in Delano apply for citizenship. “As a child of farmworkers,” she said, “I really want to vote.”
But do others agree? Hernandez and a lot of young Latinos like her — many motivated, some less so — could be pivotal to what happens in this grape-growing region with a disappointing history of voter turnout. That history explains why get-out-the-vote campaigns hoping to energize thousands of voters have been sweeping through California’s Central Valley in recent weeks, as labor groups and immigrant rights activists aim to send a message to President Donald J. Trump.
In the eye of the storm: the district’s congressman, U.S. Rep. David Valadao, a Republican who has defied the odds by being elected three times in a district where Democrats hold a registration advantage and Hillary Clinton was victorious just two years ago.
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There’s no escaping Delano’s dramatic past. Not far from the roadside shrine commemorating the Garcias, the United Farm Workers’ original adobe headquarters, “Forty Acres,” is now a national historic landmark — something few would have imagined in the late 1960s here in Kern County. A bronze plaque and other markers explain Delano’s place in a chapter of American history that still rankles some conservatives and divides people here even today.
It took a five-year strike and a national boycott campaign for the UFW to obtain its first union contract in 1970 benefiting Mexican-American and Mexican and Filipino immigrant grape laborers. As door-to-door voter turnout campaigns tick up to Election Day, Forty Acres is a reminder that change can take root slowly.
For frustrated Democrats, this is a crucial beachhead. Out of the 53 seats allotted to California in the House of Representatives, only 14 districts are held by Republicans in a state that’s been gradually turning deep blue for years now. Delano, 77 percent Latino, sits in one of the GOP pockets: the sprawling 21st Congressional District. The Almanac of American Politics says Valadao has won here against Democratic candidates “who have consistently under-performed initial expectations.”
Stretching more than 150-miles northwest to southeast, the Valley district includes parts of Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties and a piece of the city of Bakersfield. The district is also home to a smattering of small cities, Naval Air Station Lemoore, a major fighter base, and mile after mile of crops and dairy farms.
Interest in midterm elections is usually tepid compared to presidential races. But it’s the age of Trump, and California is a state where Latinos, mostly Mexican-American, are now the single largest demographic.
Against this backdrop, Democrats hope that more door-to-door contact with “low-propensity” voters and “ticket splitters” will channel that anti-Trump sentiment into victories in at least a few GOP-held districts. If that happens, GOP California could shrink more and contribute to “flipping” the Republican-held U.S. House of Representatives to Democrats. But Valadao has not been alone in bucking the tide; neighboring conservative districts are held by House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and rising conservative star Devin Nunes.
Democrats would dearly love to do better here. But even enthusiasts don’t expect turnout miracles.
Statewide, Latinos are only 21 percent of those most likely to vote in elections generally, even though 34 percent of those eligible to vote in California are Latino, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
But young people, especially, who are scared for their peers’ or their own undocumented parents, say there’s no choice but to hit the streets and persuade those eligible to cast ballots.
“We share a history as the children of immigrant parents. We don’t know if the next ICE pursuit with be for one our families,” said Bryan Osorio, 22, who grew up in Delano. He explained the personal stakes for so many here during a meeting at Delano’s sole Starbucks. The coffee shop wasn’t far from where workers, swaddled in scarfs to fend off dust, were gleaning the last of this area’s gargantuan crop of table grapes to ship back East.
After the Garcias died, Delano police examined video and found that ICE agents had pursued the couple with lights flashing, contrary to what ICE agents told officers investigating circumstances of the chase. Police recommended Kern County prosecutors charge ICE agents for providing false information, but prosecutors disagreed that evidence supported that charge. Osorio and fellow students who were home on spring break marched with Delano high school students denouncing Trump’s aggressive deployment of ICE.
Osorio’s immigrant parents aren’t citizens and can’t vote, he said. But he can.
Going back years, Republican politicians and agribusiness companies in California have acknowledged that they depend on immigrant workers, many of whom likely don’t have authentic work documents. As producers of more than half the fruits, vegetables and nuts in the country — and as the biggest dairy producers — California agribusiness interests lobbied Washington for years to legalize the labor force.
That didn’t happen, and then Trump was elected.
Because he’d like a leadership role in vigorously challenging Trump policies, Osorio is now running for Delano City Council. He’s also vowing to address Delano’s poor water quality and stop water rate hikes burdening low-income families here. Armed with research to help him home in on infrequent voters, the recent University of California at Berkeley graduate has been knocking on doors on the West side of Delano, the Latino barrio back when Latinos were a minority and some white-owned establishments barred Mexicans from entry. [FS4] [WG5]
Other college students are backing Osorio, and they split up homes chosen as targets. When he’s not campaigning, Osorio’s working as a fellow at the American Civil Liberties Institute.
“I’ve gotten a lot of vulgar comments from older men,” Osorio said of reactions to his campaign. “They said, ‘When I was your age I was chasing girls and partying. But my respect to you.’ ”
During his canvassing rounds, Osorio secured a verbal pledge of support from an 80-year-old citizen relaxing in his rose garden. A younger man in dusty work clothes shook Osorio’s hand and assured him in a mix of Spanish and English that he’d already voted “all Democrats” and for Osorio.
“Maybe he did,” Osorio said, as his team discussed follow up visits. Not all voters appreciated the students’ visits. As one of Osorio’s friends approached a house, he was met with: “I don’t vote. Go away.”
It’s easy to see why it’s frustrating to Delano immigrant activists and Democrats that the 21st Congressional District remains Republican.
The district chose Democrat Hillary Clinton over Trump by about 16 points in 2016, making it one of seven GOP-held congressional districts in the state where the Democrat prevailed. But even with an estimated 16-point Democratic registration advantage over Republicans in the 21st District, voters also returned Valadao to Congress.
Like the more nationally recognizable Nunes, Valadao, 41, comes from dairy-farming roots. A bank seized Valadao’s family farm in June due to $8 million in unpaid loans, a crisis Valadao said exemplifies the travails of farmers he serves.
A mild-mannered man, Valadao recently posed in Arizona with President Trump, along with Nunes and McCarthy of Bakersfield, who hopes to vault from GOP majority leader to Speaker of the House if the GOP retains control.
The photo op on Oct. 19 was all about irrigation water — a massive issue here. It showcased Trump signing a memo accelerating biological reviews of water systems that Central Valley farmers — and workers — hope will divert more water from California rivers that are home to endangered species. Trump’s move was met here with strong approval, and there was Valadao by his side.
In addition to its tight bond with agribusiness, the Valley is also one of California’s most culturally conservative regions. Evangelical churches are prominent, along with conservative talk radio. Some local Latino activists suggest,too, that Valadao has benefited at the polls because some voters think he is of Mexican heritage. In reality, Valadao is of Portuguese descent, as is Nunes.
So, what gives Democrats hope for this election?
The president’s lacerating rhetoric about Mexican immigrants has upset a lot of people, so even if they regard Valadao as moderate, Trump has further tarnished the Republican brand in California. About 62 percent of the 21st District’s residents who are eligible to vote are Latino.
“These immigrants risk their lives to work here,” said Mexican-American Erica Cruz, 48, a self-employed hairdresser whose husband used to be undocumented. “Latinos are getting picked on. This town thrives on Latinos. … Trump is putting us in a terrible position, and we’re scared.”