Donald Trump is heading to the Nevada caucus as the front-runner to become the Republican nominee propelled in large part by his position on immigration.
But for the first time in the primary season, the outspoken mogul may have to navigate choppier waters — eight months after he referred to Mexican immigrants as “rapists,” Trump is facing a state in which nearly one in five eligible voters is Hispanic immigrants.
Meanwhile, Cuban-Americans Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz are entering the Silver State primary confident in their chance to win over any Latino Republican voters who feel alienated by Trump’s immigration message.
Latino voters groups in Nevada such as Mi Familia Vota, as well as immigration activists and powerful unions, have said that the anti-Trump sentiment in the community is fueling substantial efforts to increase Latino voter registration and even impacting the number of Hispanics becoming U.S. citizens before the general elections in the fall.
“They’ve used Trump’s rhetoric as a tool to mobilize Latinos who could be citizens, but are not, to get them naturalized so they can turn out to vote,” David Damore, assistant professor of political science at University of Nevada, Las Vegas told Fox News Latino.
Representatives for the Culinary Workers Union said they plan on moving 25,000 Latinos in Nevada through the naturalization process by June 1, in addition to registering 12,000 members to vote.
Helga Flores says Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric is what inspired her and two friends to travel from Washington D.C. to Nevada to volunteer to help Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s campaign. She has lived legally in the United States for 13 years, and is now on her way to become a citizen so that she can become eligible in time for the general election.
“This is truly an important one and certainly what I hear from the Republican side is scary. I think it’s time to mobilize," she said.
“I know my vote is important and I want to vote. I want to become a citizen to vote,” said Eleutrea Blanco, who works at Trump’s Las Vegas hotel and has been in the U.S. legally for more than 35 years. “Many of my colleagues have not had the chance to become a citizen; they are today working to become citizens so that their vote counts.”
Blanco, who legalized her status under former President Ronald Reagan’s immigration program, said she is motivated to become a U.S. citizen thanks to Trump’s persistent anti-immigrant rhetoric.
“I want to vote for the person that’s going to help many immigrants,” she said. “I want my coworkers to get help, like I did.”
An MSNBC/Telemundo/Marist Poll conducted in Nevada in November found that out of 264 Latino registered voters, 65 percent had a somewhat negative/very negative view of Trump.
Still, many Latino Republicans support Trump and like his comments on immigration. During his victory speech in South Carolina Saturday night, he reiterated that polls show that he’s winning Hispanics in Nevada. “I love them. They love me,” he said.
Fox News Latino has not found any polls from nationally recognized organizations using standard methodological techniques that substantiate Trump’s claims about Hispanics in Nevada. However, according to in the Real Clear Politics, he holds a double digit lead statewide – and some of those votes are coming from conservative Latinos.
Patricia Martinelli-Price, an interior designer and philanthropist whose family has had business ties with Trump’s family, said the country needs a CEO because “America is a business.”
She also said Trump will likely work on comprehensive immigration reform once elected into office, even if he is not saying he will.
“He doesn’t hate us. We are a nation of laws and it’s not just Hispanics who have come to America illegally, they’re from all over the world,” she said. “They’re coming from a border that’s not being controlled. It’s not racist, it’s a business thing. It’s our lives as Americans.”
UNLV law student Sebastian Gajardo, 28, said he and his parents support Trump and have other Latino friends who do so as well but are afraid of being chastised if they vocalize support.
“Hispanics that have been and are established here tend to like him, especially the ones that are more conservative-leaning and more involved in business, whereas those who are more recent immigrants dislike him,” he said.
“We have a policy that is basically [to look] the other way, not just from Latin America but all over the world,” he added. “People are coming here illegally competing for jobs [and] it is driving wages down.”
On the other hand, Republican Latinos who feel alienated by Trump’s rhetoric are throwing their support behind the two Hispanic candidates in the GOP, Cruz and Rubio.
Fernando Romero, president of Hispanics in Politics, was a lifelong Democrat but joined the Republican Party nine months ago after growing disillusioned because of the party’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
He is now considering caucusing for Rubio.
“I will not stand for my people to be lied to anymore because the frustration sets in. It’s an agonizing matter. It’s a matter where families are split,” Romero said. “It’s one of those things where you say ‘I sat on this table for all this time and I was never given what I was promised,’ so now I am going to go over here and sit at their table and see what happens.”
“They need to address the millions of Latinos and immigrants. We are not a white majority country anymore,” he added.
Bryan Llenas currently serves as a New York-based correspondent for Fox News Channel (FNC) and a reporter for Fox News Latino (FNL). Click here for more information on Bryan Llenas. Follow him on Twitter @BryanLlenas.