When she was 12, Magali Sanchez's parents divorced. Her mother, unable to find work in Mexico that would feed the family, made a desperate decision. She skirted U.S. immigration procedure and brought her family across the border to California.
When Sanchez was 17, she dropped out of high school and went to work in a sock factory. Her family needed another income and Sanchez knew undocumented immigrants are ineligible for college financial aid. A few years later, a real estate agent put her to work selling property, but pocketed most of her commissions. As an undocumented immigrant, Sanchez couldn’t take the state real estate licensing exam. And at age 36, Magali Sanchez Hall summoned the courage to leave her physically abusive, American-born husband. He responded by withdrawing the application he’d filed to adjust her legal status.
In the last week, political pundits have dedicated considerable time and ink to Julia, the prototypical American woman featured in an interactive infographic released by President Barack Obama's campaign. “The Life of Julia” details the effects of Obama policies and those proposed or endorsed by GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney on critical phases of the fictional Julia’s life, according to the president’s reelection campaign. The lives of the very real Magali Sanchez Hall and the fictional Julia diverge, no matter who's the president.
Republican critics say The Life of Julia shows how government-dependent Obama’s America will be. Obama's campaign says it's part of an effort to demonstrate the President's commitment to women's core concerns. While the conversation about the infographic has begun quiet down, both Obama and Romney have continued to compete loudly for Latino voters like Sanchez Hall. But people who study the Latino electorate say an inordinate amount of attention has been focused on one issue that doesn’t sit at the top of the average Hispanic voter’s political priority list: immigration.
Ask Sanchez Hall, 42, about her core issues and she’ll say making education affordable and stopping cuts to the social safety net are key. She would like to see programs that assist the poor strengthened and redesigned in ways that help people get out of poverty. She also wants government to encourage companies to create jobs that pay family-sustaining wages. She knows people struggling to find work and decent pay. Immigration reform would be nice, even smart, she said. But other things –- pocketbook and prosperity matters -- come first.
“I do worry about the undocumented,” said Sanchez Hall, who now lives in Los Angles with her daughters, 14 and 11. Almost a decade ago, domestic violence shelter workers helped Sanchez Hall apply for a special domestic violence- victim visa and eventually become a citizen. “I know what it’s like not to have a voice, to always be afraid. But I also know that there are a lot of people who are trapped in poverty and struggling without opportunity. And I worry about that too.”
It turns out that Sanchez Hall is not alone. Half of Latino registered voters identified jobs as their top concern in a Pew Hispanic Center poll released in December. Nearly as many, 49 percent, identified education as a core issue and 45 percent pointed to health care, according to the poll. Another 34 percent said taxes and the federal budget deficit rank high on their lists, tying the two issues for fourth. Immigration came in a close fifth, with 33 percent calling it a top concern.
A Fox News Latino poll released in March found something similar. About 49 percent of likely Latino voters said that the economy and jobs are the most important issues that will shape their vote for president this year. About 15 percent pointed to education and nearly as many identified health care. And 12 percent said immigration was a chief concern.
That’s really not surprising when you consider the experience that many Latino voters had during the recession and recovery, said Efren Perez, a Vanderbilt University political scientist who studies political psychology and public opinion, with an emphasis on racial and ethnic politics.
Before the recession, Latino families made significant economic gains. That included a home ownership rate that hit 51 percent in 2005, according to federal data. By 2009, that figure had slumped to 47 percent. Median Latino household wealth -– a tally of cash, cars, homes and other assets owned after accounting for debt -– dropped from about $18,000 in 2005 to just over $6,000 in 2009. And there are more Latinos without health insurance than any other demographic group. One reason for all of those problems: the elevated Latino unemployment rate.
In late-2011 Latinos and African Americans together made up just 28 percent of the nation's population and 26 percent of the nation’s workforce, but 40 percent of those who had been unemployed for six months or less, a January report by Pew Center’s Fiscal Analysis Initiative found. But, Latinos were less likely to remain unemployed after one year.
“The economic doldrums are serious. They’ve hurt plenty of Americans, but hit minorities, I think, in some jarring ways," said Perez. "I think that there are lot of Latino families that feel fundamentally scarred.”
Right-leaning blogs, columnists, the Romney campaign and the Republican National Committee’s Hispanic Outreach Director Bettina Inclán, have all tried to advance that message in recent weeks.
“To assume that immigration is the only thing we [Hispanics] care about is false, it’s almost insulting,” a frustrated Inclán said during a Thursday conference call with reporters, according to Fox News Latino.
Obama's backers point to the campaign’s Spanish-language ads featuring Hispanic men and women talking about the impact of Obama’s policies and the tip sheets released by the White House identifying how the administration thinks policies affect different groups.
Back in Los Angles, Sanchez Hall is working on life in her 40s. She lives in school-owned family housing near the University of California, Los Angeles. She and her daughters eat with the help of food stamps and live off what’s left from Sanchez Hall’s Pell grant and student loans. When other needs come up, Sanchez Hall sometimes taps what she calls a, “real social network,” of friends and family who share gently used hand-me-downs.
“I like to say that I am a fighter, not a victim or a survivor,” said Sanchez Hall. “But the reality is that we all need some help or at least a government that does what it can to give every person a reasonable chance of success. If we want stable families, if we want a stable country, we have to take that seriously.”
In June, the family’s struggles and the government’s help will pay off, Sanchez Hall said. She will earn her bachelor’s degree. In a few years, after law school and work in the community, Sanchez Hall wants to start writing the next chapter in the life of Magali Sanchez Hall, a real woman.
She wants to run for public office.