Why Utah’s Latino immigrant community is still waiting to celebrate after Joe Biden’s election

Many stay underground as they worry President Donald Trump might somehow stay in office and continue anti-immigrant policies and rhetoric.

Longtime activist Josie Valdez said it was a sign four years ago of just how terrified Latinos were when Donald Trump was elected president.

She found long lines of Latinos buying several carts of food each at a warehouse store the day after the election. One woman told her why: “Trump said he’s going to round us all up and send us back, so I want to be as low-profile as possible.” Stocking up allowed her to stay deeper underground.

Valdez said then that Trump’s election “set off a bomb of fear” in Utah’s Latino immigrant community — with more going off the radar, preparing contingency plans if family members were deported, and worrying about abuse by people emboldened by Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric.

So how have things changed with the election now of Joe Biden — even though Trump continues to contest the results and insists he was robbed?

“There’s still an underlying heartbeat of fear, but there’s some hope with Biden,” said Valdez, a former vice chair of the Utah Democratic Party and a one-time nominee for lieutenant governor. “Every little negative thing that is heard on Twitter or in the news or in scuttlebutt creates a certain amount of fear in the community.”

Brandy Farmer, president and CEO of Centro Civico Mexicano in Salt Lake City, said many Latinos “believe Trump can still overturn the election, so they are still afraid that something still can happen. I think that after the inauguration, things will calm down a little bit.”

While Richard Jaramillo, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, said there was a “collective sigh of relief” with Biden’s victory being declared, he added, “The inauguration will bring another sigh of relief, I’m sure.”

So, leaders say Utah Latinos are still waiting and watching without big celebrations until Biden is firmly in office, worrying the current White House occupant may yet pull a rabbit out of the hat. Any relief they feel also is tempered by what they say is a realization that it may take years to overcome what they see as damage done by the Trump presidency to immigrants.

“And Trump is going to continue to keep up the momentum [on anti-immigrant issues],” Farmer said, “because he wants to run again in four years.”

(Chris Detrick | Tribune file photo) Brandy Farmer, president and CEO of Centro Civico Mexicano.

From the border wall to family separation

It’s not hard to see why Trump creates persistent fear in the immigrant community, both among those who are here legally and those without papers.

He’s pushed building a wall on the Mexican border; his policies separated immigrant children from families; he banned visas for residents of some largely Muslim counties; he pushed policies that made legal immigrants fear to accept aid because they might be deemed a “public charge” and deported; he greatly reduced how many refuges the country will accept; and he cut back visas for foreign workers.

Some of his other steps included trying to block counting noncitizens in the census; calling for ending recognizing anyone born in America as a citizen; increasing deportations; and trying to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that allowed people brought here without papers as children to obtain work permits.

“Hopefully, a lot of the immigration- and refugee-related policies of the Trump administration will be reversed in the Biden administration. But that takes time,” Jaramillo said. Even Biden himself is warning that it will take months to reverse many policies.

“So, we will be feeling the impact of the Trump administration for some time,” Jaramillo said. “So, yes, the election was a sigh of relief, but it’s not something that is felt in the day-to-day lives of folks yet.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Richard Jaramillo, president of the Utah Coalition of La Raza, speaks at the Rose Wagner Theater on March 2, 2019.

He said many Latinos expect, for example, to see a continuation of “the emboldened culture” of people enabled by Trump openly criticizing or belittling immigrants.

“You’ve got to expect [Trump fans] to first be able to acknowledge a loss before you can expect perhaps some change,” Jaramillo said. “The fact that we don’t see a concession and that we see a continued effort to push conspiracy theories is not helpful to the types of attitudes and vitriol that led to Trump’s rise in the first place.”

“A lot of damage has been done,” said Mayra Cedano, executive director of Comunidades Unidas. “The damage revolves around the awful racism and xenophobia we’ve seen just explode during this administration.”

She said that her group has been receiving more reports than ever about racist treatment of Latinos while shopping or even merely driving along the streets.

“People are really afraid of just interacting with others. People were afraid of going out,” she said. “It’s important to recognize that there’s going to be a lot of work that we need to heal the damage that has been done and bring all communities together.”

Staying under the radar

Leaders say they see many examples of immigrants — both legal and those without papers — still taking steps to stay off the radar until Trump is truly gone, and for perhaps much longer.

“Something that we continue to see on a daily basis is community members afraid of seeking services” such as health care or food, even emergency pandemic help, Cedano said.

Under Trump administration policy, she explained, even people here legally with green cards might be considered a “public charge” and deported if they are not self-sufficient, which is difficult for many during the pandemic. Because many families are “mixed-status,” with some here legally and others not, all of them may avoid any help.

(Trent Nelson | Tribune file photo) Mayra Cedano, now executive director of Communidades Unidas, speaks during a rally in front of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) office in West Valley City on Friday Aug. 30, 2019.

“They worry that [accepting aid] might affect them in the future,” she said. Many who are without papers also fear that government social agencies might share their names or information with immigration officials.

Valdez said she has gone “undercover” to some community food pantries to see how much Latinos are depending on them in the pandemic — and initially was surprised to notice a big drop in Hispanics who use them. Then she found out why: Families tend to band together to take turns going to them to decrease their outside exposure in a time of fear.

“What they do is send a representative, and that person gets food for more than what they need,” she said. “They may get it for themselves and two other families. The next week another person goes, and they take turns. It diminishes their exposure.”

Valdez said part of their fear comes, especially for the undocumented, because pantries usually require people to sign in and list at least a home ZIP code. “They don’t ask for ID. So a lot of people just write down ‘Juan Gonzalez,’ even though their name is not Juan Gonzalez.”

Some hope on the horizon

The pandemic created a silver lining for many in the immigrant community, despite their higher infection rate and higher risk of losing jobs and homes, Jaramillo said.

“Everyone in Utah is sort of living underground right now with COVID,” he said. “So that lifestyle has become normal” instead of tied to scared immigrants. “Their day-to-day lives are as normal as can be.”

Jaramillo said the fact the community has seen some increased hope with Biden’s win comes especially in how many young people who might qualify for work permits through DACA are rushing to apply since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld that program.

“There’s concerted efforts now to really push folks to apply or renew,” he said. “There was some hesitation during the Trump administration for fear that information would be used to target you or your family.”

He said immigrants like what they are seeing not only in what Biden says — such as strongly supporting DACA — but also in what he has been doing, including adding many minorities to his Cabinet and other government posts.

“He is making an administration that looks like America,” he said. “We’re pretty pleased with that.”

Still, Cedano said, “now our families and our communities are understanding that no one is going to give us the freedom or the things that we want, that we actually have to continue to fight for them. That’s actually going to take a very long time.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Protesters gather outside of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) field office in West Valley City, on Aug. 10, 2019.