The small conference room was packed with an energetic, yet focused group primarily consisting of young adults, but with a handful of children and senior citizens too. Many were affiliated with Mi Familia Vota, a national non-profit focused on increasing civic participation in the Latino community, and proudly acknowledged the importance of their political engagement.
“We all know that no candidate will win without the Latino vote,” one woman said.
Expectations early in the evening seemed mixed, though some said they knew the night would be filled with abbreviated versions of typical candidate stump speeches. A few jokes were cracked about Donald Trump before the debate began, but overall, no one appeared to take him or his platform seriously.
During the first round of questions, many in the room scoffed at the candidates’ responses – Chris Christie’s comment about cutting government programs, Scott Walker’s determination to cut funding to Planned Parenthood, Trump’s declaration that America’s biggest problem is political correctness. But when the Fox News moderators announced it was time for questions about immigration, everyone in the conference room perked up.
There were many head shakes and a chorus of loud “no’s” when Jeb Bush said he would eliminate sanctuary cities, but a few nods of agreement when he spoke about his plan to create more “pathways to citizenship.” There were eye-rolls and utterances of “ugh” or “oh god,” whenever a candidate mentioned building a big wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, and one young woman in the front row chided the moderator for using the term “an illegal” to describe the man who allegedly shot Kate Steinle last month — “it’s ‘undocumented,’” she said loudly.
And then Trump declared that no one would be talking about immigration if it weren’t for him.
Many in the room laughed or looked dumbfounded. Trump was then given 30 extra seconds to respond – i.e., asked to actually answer the moderator’s question about his alleged proof that the Mexican government is sending criminals into the United States – and the room erupted in laughter.
“If the Mexican government is sending criminals up here, they’re not doing a very good job,” ASU student Enrique Sánchez said to New Times. “I’m originally from Mexico; that’s how I know he’s wrong.”
Sánchez proved to be an informed critic of each candidate, pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in their arguments – “I guess the drug war is all in our heads, and it’s not really happening,” he said with a smile after one of the candidate’s comments. During commercial breaks, Sanchez explained that his past informs his current political positions, and outlined how as a DREAMer, he’s an example of some of the problems facing so many other young immigrants in this country.
Sánchez has two younger brothers, and the three of them came here in 2006 with their mother, who was married to a man working in Arizona. Sánchez and his brothers entered the country legally, but then overstayed their visas.
“I didn’t find that out until I hit my senior year in high school,” Sánchez says, describing the moment he learned this as a slap in the face. “I was in the top 10 percent of my class, and I just felt like, all of a sudden, everything I did was nothing.” This was prior to the 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, meaning his plan to go to college was suddenly up in the air because he knew there was no way he could afford out-of-state tuition to any university.
His mother and stepfather had divorced a few years earlier, and she supported the family by working "under the table" for a family friend, since none of them had a legal work permit.
“I applied and got into the Honor’s College at ASU…but couldn’t afford it,” he says.
During most of his senior year, he remembers wondering why he was still going through the motions of attending class.
Since ASU was out of the question, he applied to a local community college that had a slightly more affordable tuition, then began working part-time for his best friend’s father – the same man who employed his mother – for the money he needed to buy books and other school necessities. (His mother also sold the bit of land the family still owned in Mexico to help pay for the cost of his education.)
When DACA first became available in August 2012, he didn’t apply because he couldn’t afford the $465 application fee
A few months later, he says, his high school government teacher made him go to a meeting about the process and then told him that she and her husband were paying the application fee for him.
“I cried,” Sánchez recalls.
Sánchez got an associates degree from the community college, and applied once again to ASU. (The Arizona Board of Regents voted recently that DACA status was proof of residency, and therefore Sánchez gets to pay in-state tuition.) He’ll start classes at ASU’s Barrett Honors College in two weeks and considers himself to be a good example of someone who came to this country as a child and did everything right — but was set back again and again by the American immigration system.
After the debate, Mi Familia Vota leaders asked those in the room what they learned and what they thought of the candidates’ plans. Without acknowledging Trump’s comments, a few people raised their hands and said that they heard little they agreed with.
A few expressed their dissatisfaction with Marco Rubio’s platform, coming down hard on the Cuban-American candidate.
“Rubio’s plan isn’t going to get us Green Cards,” Sánchez told the room. “I’m already working, so I don’t need Marco Rubio telling me I need to work for citizenship.”
An older woman sitting next to him smiled and put her hand on his shoulder.
“At the end of the day, I didn’t see solutions here,” another woman said, “and I’m interested in seeing what the Democrats have to say.”
“Right, we want to keep track of both parties. And remember, it doesn’t end with watch parties. Our mission is to engage Latinos in the decision-making process,” explained Raquel Terán, Mi Familia Vota Arizona state director.
She added that it was everyone in the room’s responsibility to help get the word out to the candidates that, for the American Latino community, “it’s not just about immigration — there are other issues that are important to us, as well.”
Editors Note: an earlier version of this story reported that Sánchez has three brothers. That is incorrect, he has two younger brothers.