Chatham’s Latino residents share hopes, fears for Biden’s term

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Twenty-year-old Siler City resident Ruben Ocelot wants to see the federal government pass immigration reform more than any other legislation — and now that Joe Biden’s taking the reins of the presidency, he thinks it just might happen.

“We need it bad,” he said, later adding, “I mean, immigration reform — it would help out so many people in my community.”

Five Latino residents in Chatham, including Ocelot, told the News + Record they hold high hopes for the Biden administration. Besides immigration reform, some hope to see Biden’s administration get the pandemic under control and the economy back on track. Yet, at the same time, they worry Biden won’t be able to unite a divided country.

Among other promises, Biden, a Democrat, has pledged to reverse Trump-era immigration policies, provide permanent protection to DACA beneficiaries and work to provide undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship.

The latter two promises, Ocelot said, would make a world of difference to many Hispanic families in Chatham County, including his own, and that’s why he hopes to see them fulfilled.

“I have siblings who have DACA,” he said. “... Seeing them struggle now with the coronavirus, having to pay $500 plus to send the application in and then having to reapply for a driver’s license — it’s just sad. I feel lucky and grateful every day that I don’t have to go through that, but it hurts to see them go through that.”

That’s why he hopes the new administration and Congress will pass legislation that will offer DACA recipients a path to citizenship.

“They’ve been here their whole lives, so I don’t see them having to go somewhere else when they grew up here,” he said. “Like, this is their home. This is where they belong.”

Providing undocumented immigrants a path to legal status, he said, would also allow families to reunite or visit loved ones they haven’t seen in years after illegally entering the U.S.

“Some people haven’t seen their parents for 20 years,” he said, adding, “My parents — their parents passed away, and they never saw them again. ... It hurts that they went through that, and I hope that other people that still have their parents alive, have the opportunity to go see them.”

Franklin Gomez Flores, Chatham’s first Latino county commissioner, said he also would like to see undocumented families gain a path to citizenship.

“For those who don’t like immigration,” he said, “really a plan to reduce immigration would be to reduce/eliminate the United States’ intervention in governmental affairs of Latin American countries.”

Beyond those two pledges, Alirio Estevez, the leader of Voto Latino Chatham, also hopes to see Biden protect and expand Temporary Protective Status (TPS) designations, which provides protection from deportation and temporary work authorization to people fleeing violence or natural disasters from certain countries, like El Salvador. The Trump administration moved to phase out TPS for several countries, and the courts have so far ruled in the government’s favor, but litigation is ongoing.

“I would like (Biden) to address that, and also to include people from Venezuela,” Estevez said. “People need refuge from Venezuela … They are here fleeing from the tyrannic President Maduro.”

He’d also like Biden to stop “indiscriminate ICE raids.”

“Sometimes they go after a lot of people and they intimidate a lot of families: Latino families, Asian families, African families,” he said. “They go after people who are hardworking families, parents, and they have a lot of children.”

Many Latino activists across the U.S. have said that Biden owes the Latino community, and Estevez agrees. Barack Obama’s administration deported immigrants by the hundreds of thousands — more than the Trump administration, according to the Pew Research Center — and couldn’t deliver the immigration reform Obama promised. Activists famously called Obama “the Deporter-in-Chief.”

“The fact that he deported a lot of immigrants, especially parents, that was something that has made some people skeptical of Biden, and I understand that point of view,” he said. “But I will say, hopefully, he has learned the lesson, and he knows that he has to deliver. He has to do something about immigration and make it real.”

The DACA program, created under the Obama administration, was “a step forward,” Ocelot said, and now he hopes Biden will “resume” ushering in reform.

“I trust him,” he said. “We have a female vice president, so I know he’s trying to look forward and just work on us moving forward, not backwards.”

Paul Cuadros, a Pittsboro resident and Jordan-Matthews men’s soccer coach, said he too thinks the country needs immigration reform after 30 years of “dealing with it poorly.”

“I do believe that the country has an obligation to maintain its sovereignty on all its borders and at its ports of entry,” he said. “So that needs to be balanced with the needs that we have for labor, and the needs that we have for our population to continue to grow.”

But until the government gets the pandemic under control and plans for future ones, he said he doesn’t think the Biden administration can really start on other issues. Better management of the pandemic and efficient mass vaccination — those are two priorities Cuadros hopes the incoming administration will work toward in the first 100 days.

“I’m hoping the Biden administration will be able to get the vaccine out in the next month, two months, three months and beyond, so that we can begin to put the pandemic behind us,” he said. “And then in the next couple of years, you know, if we can get our hands around the pandemic, we can then begin to grow the economy back.”

Ocelot and Estevez likewise hope to see Biden’s administration speed up the vaccine distribution process and look forward to Biden’s proposed $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package.

“(The pandemic’s) getting out of hand, or it’s out of hand already,” Ocelot said, adding, “I mean, I’ve seen it firsthand. It sucked seeing (my dad) go through that. Thankfully, I was non-symptomatic, but he wasn’t that fortunate. … There was one day that it was hard for him to breathe, and he was like, it was — he was preparing, you can say. It was tough.”

Beyond COVID-19, several residents, including Ocelot and Estevez, have expressed hopes that the new federal government will raise taxes on those who make over $400,000 annually, raise the minimum wage to $15, increase education funding and expand health care coverage. Siler City resident, Kimberly Lara, 19, also said she expects him to tackle climate change.

“I have high expectations for Biden,” she said, adding, “He’s created a plan to help fight climate change that’s similar to the Green New Deal. ... I’m most excited for his economic plans to raise taxes for the rich and raise the minimum wage.”

“We’re not in 2005 anymore,” Ocelot added. “Prices are going up. The people can hardly pay rent with this minimum wage that we have right now.”

Beyond wages, Gomez Flores told the News + Record that he would like the federal government to improve labor laws and benefits as well.

“Many of our community members are overworked and underpaid, dedicating countless hours to work and not enough to family,” he said. “I hope for an administration that puts people and small/local businesses in need first.”

‘Hopefully, we start this healing process’

Nearly all of those interviewed, however, worry whether Biden will be able to heal the nation’s political divide, as he promised in his victory speech last November — especially after the Capitol riots on Jan. 6 and Trump’s subsequent impeachment.

“In November, (Biden) said unity is the most important thing for him, and I agree,” Lara said. “We’re so fast to judge people; we should take a second to look at the bigger picture and re-evaluate our morals. My biggest worry is we won’t meet our expectations and it’ll increase the division.”

The riots and ongoing threat of violence particularly struck a chord in Estevez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Colombia.

“The way I see Washington, D.C. right now is like when I was a child in Colombia, and you see soldiers everywhere in the city, in Bogota,” he said. “... I feel like I’m back in my country, third world country, in the middle of the Cold War. That’s scary.”

In light of that, he said he thinks Biden will try to restore unity, though ultimately, he thinks it’ll be up to the American people.

“I don’t doubt he wants to be a united country, but to unite, you have to have two parts willing to be together,” Estevez said. “And so far, I only see him trying to be together, and the other led by Trump doesn’t want it at all. Hopefully, they’ll change their minds.”

Though the final decision rests with citizens, Cuadros said Biden could still lead people in a certain direction.

“We’ve seen that in the past two weeks when people are led astray by misinformation and lies, and how people can get stoked up to do bad things,” he said. “(The) question to ask is … Can you inspire people to do good things? That takes a really special leader. So I think that remains to be seen with President-Elect Biden.”

But most immediately, Cuadros worries that both parties won’t be able to join together to govern.

“We’ve had gridlock in government for a long time now, but we’re in a national crisis, and we can’t have gridlock at this point,” he said. “We need to have things streamlined to be able to respond to the pandemic so that we can re-establish the economy.”

Political divisions won’t heal overnight, Ocelot said, but he’s holding out hope.

“We need to all work together because right now, we’re not united; we’re all divided,” he said. “And it’s sad because we need to get stuff done and move forward and be a better country altogether. Hopefully, we start this healing process. I look forward to a better United States that works together, no matter (their) political sides.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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