Jeff Denham failed to change the law for Dreamers. Will his effort change Hispanic votes?

Dave Lopez, a former councilman and owner of Sam and Dave’s Market in Modesto, has a picture of him and Rep. Jeff Denham together by his register. Lopez says he will continue to support Denham this year, though other members of the Hispanic community have given him flack for it.
Dave Lopez, a former councilman and owner of Sam and Dave’s Market in Modesto, has a picture of him and Rep. Jeff Denham together by his register. Lopez says he will continue to support Denham this year, though other members of the Hispanic community have given him flack for it. McClatchy

California Republican Rep. Jeff Denham tried hard this year to force Congress to consider a pathway to citizenship for some immigrants — a risky effort in a volatile election year.

His bid failed, and as he approaches Election Day in serious danger of losing his seat, Denham finds his attempts to revamp immigration laws were not good enough for Hispanic voters in his district, where Latinos are 40 percent of the population.

Many pointed out his efforts didn’t actually change anything for them — if they had even heard of the effort at all.

“He hasn’t delivered the goods,” said Solange Goncalves Altman, a retired immigration attorney who has worked in Modesto for more than three decades and had met with Denham multiple times in Washington during lobbying efforts. “His heart may be in it, but he hasn’t been effective.”

And, she said, “He can’t be successful because of his party.”

Denham pushed the House this spring to vote on a pathway to citizenship for Dreamers, young immigrants who came to the country illegally as children.

His bid eventually resulted in a comprehensive immigration reform bill which would have also limited legal immigration. It failed dramatically in the House and wasn’t even considered by the Senate. Congress has taken up no other significant immigration legislation since.

Denham’s race will likely come down to turnout, which is historically low among the Hispanic population. Hispanics represent 34 percent of California’s adult population but account for only 21 percent of those most likely to vote, according to the Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan research group.

That’s consistent with statistics in Denham’s congressional district, where there have been strong efforts by Democrats to register the Hispanic community.

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While about 40 percent of the district’s population is Hispanic, they only make up about 30 percent of registered district voters in 2018, up from about 27 percent of registered voters in 2014, according to Political Data Inc.

Many in the Hispanic community and Democratic groups insist the population is going to be more engaged this time around.

Yvette Schopp-Ortega, who grew up in Modesto and is canvassing for NextGen America, a progressive organization focused on turning out young voters, said a program it uses to identify where voters live has found a lot more people in Hispanic communities than it did when she canvassed for another issue in 2016.

“People are paying more attention this time because of (President Donald) Trump,” said Carlos Barajas, a caseworker with El Concilio, a Latino nonprofit agency in the San Joaquin Valley that provides legal services. “They got too comfortable, and then Trump started pushing people’s buttons.”

Several registered Hispanic voters in their late teens and early 20s interviewed by McClatchy said they knew nothing about either Democrat Josh Harder or Denham.

They said that while they planned to do more research before voting they’d probably vote for Harder because he’s a Democrat. Many had never heard of Denham’s effort to force a vote on Dreamers.

Maria Ruiz, 19, who said she’d be voting for the first time this election and it would be for Harder, used harsh terms to question the Republicans’ commitment to the Hispanic community. “I think Republicans are racist,” she said.

Others used softer language, but indicated they believed Democrats were more on their side for important issues such as health care and immigration. One man said he couldn’t yet register to vote but was trying to get his citizenship specifically to do that.

“We have to fight the good fight,” he said in Spanish, pounding the air with a fist and grinning.

Alex Galeana, a Dreamer who is also an organizing director for NextGen America in the 10th district, said even though people like him can’t vote they’re dedicated to making sure their friends, family and others in their community do so. It’s not hard to show them why Republicans aren’t on his side, he said.

“Just look at their rhetoric,” Galeana said. “Look at what Trump says about us.”

Dave Lopez, a former Modesto city councilman, mayoral candidate and registered Democrat, said he has supported Denham and will continue to do so this year. He said even though Denham’s effort on Dreamers wasn’t successful, Lopez respected him for trying.

But when he mans the counter of his store, a combined market and deli called Sam and Dave’s Market in downtown Modesto, he says he’ll get some flack from people for a picture perched on the counter by the register. It’s a photo of Denham and Lopez in front of the shop, signed by Denham with a message calling Lopez a friend.

“Some people will say, ‘It went nowhere, so that didn’t do anything for us,’” Lopez said, in between ringing up customers he greeted by name. “I don’t agree with that. I think the conversation is important, and I know keeping that photo up is the right decision.”

Barajas, who is not a citizen but a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program created under former President Barack Obama, said he wouldn’t vote for Harder either if he could. He doesn’t believe either candidate would be an effective advocate for the Hispanic community, and insisted both parties needed to find candidates who understood their plights.

But would he have voted for Denham if his effort was successful and gave Dreamers a path to citizenship?

“Of course I would,” Barajas said.

Kate Irby: 202-383-6071; @KateIrby