by Jennifer Medina
At a rally in New Mexico this week, Hispanic voters enthusiastically backed the president’s hard-line approach to immigration.
Some wore it proudly emblazoned across their chest: Latinos for Trump, though they would rarely use the ethnic term to describe themselves. A few forcefully emphasized that they were Hispanic, wielding it as if were a badge that proved they could not be racist, even as they said racism was a manufactured problem. For many, their identity was something of an afterthought.
President Trump came to New Mexico Monday night for a rally aimed at demonstrating his support among Hispanic voters, and many did come to hear him — enthusiastically waiting for hours in the blazing sun.
Some said they were political loners among friends and family who were ardent Democrats. Others came from a long line of Republican voters.
“We are American,” said Martha Garcia, 65, who moved to New Mexico from Southern California two decades ago. She said she voted for Mr. Trump in 2016 and agreed with much of his rhetoric about the need to curb immigration.
“We didn’t cross the border, the border crossed us,” she added, echoing a refrain typically used by immigrant rights activists who support more liberal policies than those of the Trump administration. But Ms. Garcia said she would not support any changes that would make it easier for people to enter the country. “We need to take care of the people who are already here.”
In New Mexico, Hispanics make up 47 percent of the population — more than in any other state in the country. (In California, the figure is about 40 percent.) Mr. Trump is deeply unpopular with most Hispanics in New Mexico, and those who do support him are unlikely to have a decisive electoral effect there. But brown faces were not hard to find at this week’s rally, held in Rio Rancho, a suburb of Albuquerque.
The Hispanic Trump supporters drawn to the event were not single-issue voters. They said they were pleased with the president’s judicial appointments, especially judges who support curbing access to abortion, and the Republican Party’s stance on gun rights. They praised Mr. Trump for tax policy that they said had put thousands of dollars in their bank accounts.
Still, interviews with more than a dozen Hispanic voters at the rally, most of whom said they belonged to families that had been in the United States for at least three generations, revealed that their support for the president was most closely tied to his immigration policies, strictly limiting new arrivals.
Most said they did not feel a connection with recent immigrants or Central American migrants currently stuck in Mexico as they try to seek asylum in the United States. Instead, they saw them as foreigners who could not assimilate.
Dee Chronis, 49, was born and raised in New Mexico and identifies as Hispanic; she recently took a DNA test that showed her ancestors were largely from Spain, she said. Her daughters, ages 13 and 9, came with her to the rally, each decked out in Trump 2020 manicures.
She spoke about recent immigrants in stark terms. “They’re not nice, they’re always angry, they expect things,” she said. “I don’t have a problem with them if they come in and blend in, speak our language.”
Mr. Trump began his presidential campaign deriding Mexicans as rapists and criminals and has made anti-immigrant rhetoric a key part of his pitch to voters. But for Hispanic supporters at the rally, the overall takeaway from that rhetoric — directed at people who might look like them — is clear: He is not talking about me.
And while Trump supporters are clearly in the minority among Hispanic voters, it would be a mistake to presume Hispanics universally condemn the president’s language. Ms. Chronis and other supporters said they believed Mr. Trump’s rhetoric protected Hispanics like them because it emphasized their American nationality over their ancestry.
While the campaign has officially labeled its outreach effort “Latinos for Trump,” all of those interviewed eschewed the label and instead identified as Hispanic, which emphasizes ties to Spain and the Spanish language instead of Latin America, and is a term that is often more readily embraced among conservatives.
When asked about the mass shooting last month in El Paso, when a white nationalist killed 22 people in the most deadly attack targeting Latinos in modern American history, most simply shrugged. Several said they had never heard of the shooter’s manifesto, which said the attack was “a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.”
Christine Sanchez, 51, said she rarely talked politics with her mother, a Democrat who is critical of Mr. Trump. “But it’s not about racism, not at all,” she said. “We weren’t raised with thinking any of that. Now, as soon as somebody hears something they don’t agree with, they say ‘racist.’”
Ms. Sanchez said she was shocked when other parents at her daughter’s school said they were fearful after the El Paso shooting.
“They felt like they were targeted because they’re Hispanic and I’m like, people, no way,” she said. “You’re in Albuquerque or Rio Rancho, and you were targeted?”
This week, the Trump campaign began a “Vamos to Victory” tour to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month. The tour was established to commemorate the independence dates of several Latin American countries.
“There are a lot of people like me here who are not liberal and support everything the president has done,” said Yolanda Castro, 56, as she edged her way toward the front row.
But Ms. Castro is in the minority. “There is definitely a significant number of Hispanic Trump supporters, but nowhere near enough for him to get the numbers to flip the state,” said Gabriel Sanchez, a pollster with Latino Decisions and the executive director of the University of New Mexico’s Center for Social Policy.
Republicans have faced significant losses in New Mexico, where the president lost by eight percentage points in 2016. A Republican presidential candidate has not carried the state since 2004. Democrats swept the midterms last year and now control every statewide office, both chambers of the legislature and the entire congressional delegation.
“Trump destroyed the Republican Party of New Mexico,” said James Lester, 67, a self-described lifelong Republican who joined in an anti-Trump rally Monday night near downtown Albuquerque.
Like many other residents of the state, Mr. Lester counts Hispanics and Anglos among his ancestors. On Monday, he wore a red T-shirt proclaiming “MAGA: Mexicans Always Get Across.” “It’s insulting for him to even step foot in this state,” Mr. Lester said.
Still, the Trump campaign seems set on courting Hispanics, and both Democrats and Republicans believe such voters could be decisive in states like Arizona, Florida and Texas. In 2016, roughly 28 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballot for Mr. Trump, according to exit interviews and the Pew Research Center.
Before the president’s arrival, Steve Cortes, a longtime Trump supporter and CNN contributor, warmed up the crowd inside the Santa Ana Star Center by railing against the news media, accusing reporters of “smearing” the president with their charges of racism. People roared in approval. They did so again after Mr. Trump asked Mr. Cortes, “Who do you like more, the country or the Hispanics?”
Outside the arena, many saw the question as raising a false choice about loyalties. Inside, there was nothing but deafening cheers for both men. Several attendees interviewed after the event shrugged off the exchange.
The waves of cheers came again when the president claimed without evidence that San Diego residents had “begged” him for a border wall. (No organized or documented request came from San Diego, and the Republican mayor there has opposed the wall.) In the hours before the president’s speech, many rally attendees spoke with alarm about gang members and drug dealers they believed had newly taken root in their neighborhoods. Even before the president himself broached the subject, the crowd began chanting, “Build the wall!”
“It’s our culture under attack, the American way of life,” said Ralph Medina, 77, who has spent the last three years traveling off and on from his home in El Paso to sell $20 Trump baseball caps at rallies across the country. “I’ve got family who was born over there in Mexico, but I’m American first. We’ve been here a long time.”
When asked if he saw any connection between the president’s rhetoric, racial divisiveness and the shooting in his hometown, Mr. Medina scoffed, calling it a “frenzy made by the media.”
“It’s silly,” he added. “How do you blame someone else for sick people who have been raised on video games?” (Mr. Trump and his supporters have made similar arguments, though there is no proven link between violent video games and mass shootings.)
Twenty years ago, Mr. Medina said, he often traveled from El Paso to Juárez, Mexico, for “restaurants and clubs and racetracks.” Now, he said, he would not think of crossing the border.
“El Paso has become a sanctuary city and now we’ve got all these people who don’t contribute, but they use our school system and they take our jobs,” he said, though research has shown that undocumented immigrants pay billions in taxes and largely fill low-wage jobs that American citizens are unwilling to perform.
Like many other Hispanic supporters, Charlie Gallegos, a 67-year-old Army veteran, said he resented that any kind of public benefit was offered to people who are living in the United States illegally.
“We’re hard-working taxpayers, we serve our country, we obey the law,” said Mr. Gallegos, who was standing in the winding line to enter the rally with several members of his extended family. His brother and nephew, both veterans, nodded in agreement. “We deserve health care, not them.”
Asked how he could distinguish between immigrants who entered legally and those who did not, Mr. Gallegos did not hesitate: “You can see it in how they carry themselves.”
But, Mr. Gallegos continued, he would support citizenship for some of the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. “If they fit in, if they are American, they can stay,” he said.
As Mr. Gallegos and his family patiently snaked through the crowd, they passed vendors selling T-shirts. Some bore the slogan: “Build the wall, deport them all.”
Simon Romero contributed reporting from Albuquerque.
Jennifer Medina is a national correspondent based in Los Angeles. A native of Southern California, she has covered the region for years, focusing on immigration, education and poverty. @jennymedina