WEST LIBERTY — Sylvia Gutierrez and her boyfriend, Kevin Fernandez, both 22, didn’t caucus four years ago. But this year, Fernandez’s grandmother, who is not a U.S. citizen, gave them a mission: Be her voice and caucus for U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders.
“I’m here because family members wanted a vote that can’t vote,” Gutierrez said. “He (Fernandez) convinced me, and so did his grandparents. His grandmother said to come and vote for her.”
The couple were among a large contingent of supporters for the Vermont senator at West Liberty’s second precinct on Monday night during the Iowa Democratic caucuses.
Iowa as a whole may be overwhelmingly more white than the rest of the country, but West Liberty is an exception to the rule. The community’s school district is one of only a handful in Iowa with a majority minority population. In 2019, about 55% of public school students were Hispanic, according to the Iowa Department of Education.
Gutierrez works at West Liberty Foods, a meat processing plant that is the largest employer in this Muscatine County town of about 3,700 people, just east of Iowa City on Highway 6. Fernandez works on a hog farm. For both of them, immigration was a central issue, but not the only one, that convinced them to support Sanders.
“I like his health care plan and his immigration plan,” Fernandez said of Sanders, mentioning his dismay with how migrant families at the Mexico border have been treated, particularly children. “We’re a big country, we should be able to help people out.”
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Of the 142 people who showed up to this caucus precinct — one of two adjacent rooms in the West Liberty Community Center — Sanders garnered five delegates, followed by four for Pete Buttigieg and three for U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Andrew Yang and Amy Klobuchar all were unviable, with smaller groups of people in their corners. Tom Steyer initially had two supporters, but they either left after the first round or joined one of the larger groups.
Sanders had the clear bulk of support from the Latino community in the room, many of them caucusing for the first time.
“We wanted to be informed, to see how it works,” said Jasmin Castillo, 38.
She works at a law office and came with Yolanda Aguilar, 66, who is retired and used to work at West Liberty Foods. Castillo translated from Spanish for Aguilar.
“We’re supporting his (Sanders’) ideas for free college,” Castillo said. “And we just don’t want Trump to be reelected.”
Juan Machado, 17, decided to caucus when he learned he was eligible, since he will be 18 when the general election is held in November. A junior at West Liberty High School, he said he felt drawn to Sanders’ message.
“He’s had the same view for decades, and that does something for me. He doesn’t change his beliefs depending on what’s popular,” he said.
Machado said immigration reform was the most important issue for him, and that he felt it was his duty to caucus.
“I want to able to feel that I’m helping,” he said. “Helping people is the most important thing to me.”
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Juan Meraz, 18, was also caucusing for the first time. A computer science student at the University of Iowa, he said he was undecided between Yang and Sanders for a long time before settling on Sanders. He also likes Sanders’ plans for free public college. And at the end of the day, he said he was simply looking for a campaign with maturity.
“To be honest, all the politicians act like children these days,” he said. “I just need a politician, not a celebrity.”
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