Amid an explosion of hunger and illness in Grand Rapids, Mich., the activist and community organizer had devoted countless hours to marshaling rent money and food donations for families that did not qualify for pandemic assistance because of their immigration status. As politicians praised working-class laborers in meatpacking plants and agricultural fields, many of them undocumented, she fumed that the government left those workers to fend for themselves if they became ill.

Now, Aguayo was in her bedroom catching up on video clips from the Democratic National Convention, hosted virtually this year because of the coronavirus. She took careful notes with a pen and notepad during a speech by Michelle Obama, who urged viewers to “vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.” Aguayo sat with the words.

Throughout the week, the carefully curated speakers called for inclusion and compassion, an emotional salve for Aguayo. But what did it all amount to? Each new president had brought fresh disappointment, including the Obama administration, which deported 3 million people. Democrats had not delivered on their promises to create a pathway to citizenship for the undocumented, even when they held Congress and the White House. Her neighbors and friends were somehow at once “essential” and “illegal.” Would yet another vote, this time for Biden, really make a difference?

And yet, President Trump openly disparaged immigrants and had instituted the policy of separating families at the border. Under his watch, the pandemic was disproportionately ravaging Latino communities. Did Aguayo’s disdain for Trump simply render her frustrations with Democrats moot?

Her choice was clear if unsatisfying.

Activist and community organizer Lorena Aguayo-Márquez stands outside of her home in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Activist and community organizer Lorena Aguayo-Márquez stands outside of her home in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

“It’s hard, right? Because we’ve been let down so many times. It’s hard to give the [Democratic] party another opportunity,” Aguayo said. “But we need to do damage control and vote and see what happens from there. I’ve been trying to reconcile my feelings, but there’s no other option. Biden is it.”

Grand Rapids, with a population of 200,000, is Michigan’s second-largest city after Detroit and the official government seat of Kent County, a onetime conservative stronghold in the western part of the state. This cycle, it is a prime target for Democrats in a battleground state that Trump carried in 2016 by just 11,000 votes. He won Kent County by about 9,500 votes in that election, but in 2018, Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won it by nearly 12,000 votes. Voters in Grand Rapids and its surrounding suburbs could swing the election in Michigan, which could decide the presidential election nationally.

The outcome will depend in part on the political calculations made by people of color, who make up about 40 percent of the population of Grand Rapids. Many Latino voters there live in mixed-status households and neighborhoods, which include undocumented people and U.S. citizens.

In 2016, lower-than-expected turnout among Democratic voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania contributed to President Trump’s unexpected victory. Trump’s path to reelection rests in part on convincing these voters to either vote for him or stay home again. The Democratic Convention was partly geared toward motivating those who sat out the 2016 election to show up for Biden this time.

Members of the Urban Core Collective and recent graduates of the Transformational Leaders Program join for a graduation ceremony in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Members of the Urban Core Collective and recent graduates of the Transformational Leaders Program join for a graduation ceremony in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

Erika VanDyke, 31, who has helped organize grass-roots pandemic relief efforts in Grand Rapids, said that in another year she might have attended watch parties for the speeches or texted friends to hear what they thought. This year, with so much energy expended on the novel coronavirus, the rhythms of national politics feel out of step with her life. She nearly forgot the convention was even happening.

But she said she will vote in November whether she is excited about Biden or not. She wishes the former vice president were “more progressive,” she said, but feels like voting for him is crucial given how poorly Trump has managed the coronavirus response. Keeping Trump in office, she said, would be dangerous.

“I think the pandemic has reminded me that [things] can always be so much worse,” she said. “You want to be voting for someone you really believe in. But I don’t have a choice but to vote in November.”

VanDyke, however, said she doesn’t fault those who are unsure if they will vote. Working people have busy, chaotic lives, she said. And some of those who stayed home in 2016 are active in other ways, such as regularly attending protests for racial justice. They have lost faith in voting because that has not produced the change they want to see, she said, and political leaders bear the blame for that disillusionment.

Erika VanDyke, 31, has helped organize grass-roots pandemic relief efforts in Grand Rapids.
Erika VanDyke, 31, has helped organize grass-roots pandemic relief efforts in Grand Rapids. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

Across the country, liberal community organizers and activists have increasingly focused their efforts on local issues amid city-by-city protests against police brutality and racism, channeling much of their anti-establishment fervor to city and county governments. In Grand Rapids, community advocates have agitated for reductions to the city’s police budget and race-conscious distribution of Cares Act funding meant for small businesses.

One of the most urgent priorities for VanDyke and other Latino organizers in Grand Rapids has been the La Lucha Fund, a grass-roots effort that has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars in assistance to undocumented people in Kent County who did not qualify for unemployment benefits or stimulus checks because of their immigration status.

The fund has raised about $730,000 since April. Earlier this month, the city commission of Grand Rapids approved $250,000 earmarked for eviction protections. The rest has been gathered through philanthropic connections and individual donations. It has been a victory of community leadership, VanDyke said. The $500 given to each family is not nearly enough assistance, she added. But it is something.

“We’re all we’ve got. It’s a ragtag group of volunteers,” she said.

Aguayo, who has been active with La Lucha Fund, recalled how fast her heart was racing one year ago when she interrupted the Democratic presidential primary debate in Detroit to protest the Obama administration’s mass deportation of undocumented people, a frequent grievance among Latino activists on the left.

But that was before the pandemic.

Sergio Cira Reyes seeks input for an upcoming river restoration project from community member and local business owner Isabel Lopez-Slattery at the Sixth Street Bridge Park in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Sergio Cira Reyes seeks input for an upcoming river restoration project from community member and local business owner Isabel Lopez-Slattery at the Sixth Street Bridge Park in Grand Rapids, Mich. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

“The local issues are competing for our attention. That work feels so much more alive than the national campaign,” said Sergio Cira Reyes, a community organizer in Grand Rapids who is active in the Latino community. “It’s hard to get people to think about politics during all of this.

Cira said the Democratic Party in the county has not done a good job of reaching out to voters of color. Grand Rapids elected its first Latina city commissioner last year, he said, because of a strong push by grass-roots Latino groups, not because anyone in the local Democratic Party showed an interest.

Cira also noted lingering skepticism with the national Democratic Party, which he feels panders to Latinos during election years but does not make Latino communities a priority afterward. He said he was frustrated that DACA was announced in 2012 in the heat of Obama’s reelection campaign but fell far short of a permanent solution.

But “I don’t know how fair it is to talk just about the Democratic Party because of everything the Republican Party has actively done to hurt us,” he said.

Daniel Caracheo, 21, became more politically involved five years ago, he said, as Trump’s campaign was gaining popularity with anti-immigrant rhetoric that deeply troubled him. Caracheo’s political views are far to the left of Biden, and he also believes establishment Democrats need to do more to reach out to young voters of color. But he wants everyone to vote for Biden anyway.

He was horrified to hear in 2017 that the Trump administration would try to rescind the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. That effort was blocked by the Supreme Court in June, but the potential second term of the Trump administration weighs heavily on him and the other hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to this country illegally as children who qualify for protected status.

Lopez-Slattery holds her embroidered mask while speaking with Cira.
Lopez-Slattery holds her embroidered mask while speaking with Cira. (Brittany Greeson/for The Washington Post)

“On my first day of college we saw a news article that DACA was going to be rescinded. And that was the beginning of a real low point in my life. We were still at that point so naively thinking Trump wouldn’t be this malicious, this bad,” he said.

Caracheo cannot vote because he is not a U.S. citizen. But he remains civically active by helping people register to vote and by canvassing to remind voters about the importance of casting a ballot.

Even if there is apathy toward Biden, several voters interviewed for this article expressed interest in becoming active and voting in local races, including to replace retiring Rep. Justin Amash, a former Republican turned independent turned Libertarian.

Whether Trump or Biden win, activists on the left already anticipate bitter disputes within the Democratic Party over health care, immigration reform and the climate crisis. Anti-Trump sentiment and the pandemic have stalled those disagreements, not erased them.

And, in some ways, VanDyke said, the pandemic has made it very clear how Washington’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform during the Obama administration can have far-reaching consequences. Many of the hardest-hit communities of essential workers today would qualify for government help if political leaders had reached an agreement on whether to create a pathway to citizenship for undocumented people in good standing, as once promised. Instead, many are left hungry or sick, or both.

“Let’s have a conversation about comprehensive immigration reform. That would solve a lot of these problems in one fell swoop,” she said. “Maybe this is an opportunity to have some of these conversations. I don’t think we can let this moment pass us by.”