Post Debate, Latinos from Across Country Assess Candidates

by Griselda Nevarez /  / Updated 

Latinos all across the country were paying close attention to what the Democratic presidential candidates said when they took the stage in Las Vegas for the first debate Tuesday night.

Some attended debate watch parties while others watched from home as five of the Democrats running for president faced off. Over in Denver, Colorado, a state where Latinos account for 21 percent of the population, Ana Temu watched the debate alongside members of the Colorado chapter of Mi Familia Vota.

The 23-year-old college student said she was “very happy” to hear the candidates talk about proposals to make tuition free for students who attend public colleges and universities.

RELATED: How Did Democratic Candidates Do? Our Latino Panel Weighs In

“I’m going to be graduating with $40,000 in debt just for my undergrad, so I’m for tuition-free higher education” said Temu, who’s a senior pursuing a political science degree at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Meanwhile, 24-year old Laura Javier of Las Vegas said she was “very disappointed” that the candidates didn’t say anything about the 40 percent tax on expensive healthcare plans that is set to take effect in 2018. The Culinary Workers Union Local 226, which is considered the most powerful union in Nevada, opposes the tax. The majority of its 55,000 members are Latinos.

“The culinary union has always played such a big role in the elections, so we were definitely expecting the candidates to talk about repealing that 40 percent tax,” said Javier, who’s part of the union.

The Latino vote is expected to play a major role in the 2016 presidential election, especially in states like Nevada where Tuesday night’s debate was held and where Latinos make up nearly 28 percent of the population.

During the debate, the candidates touched on some important issues for the Latino community.

Hillary Clinton said she wants to “make sure every single person in this country has the same opportunities” that she and her husband, former President Bill Clinton, had. To achieve that, she wants to do things like create more good-paying jobs, raise the minimum wage and implement paid family leave.

On the same stage with Clinton was Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who’s proving to be Clinton’s biggest rival. Sanders said he wants to address income inequality and close the wage gap that exists between the rich and the poor. He also noted in his opening statement that Hispanic and African American youth have higher rates of unemployment than other groups and suggested putting more money into education and jobs for youth rather than building more jails.

Meanwhile, former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley touted his 15 years of executive experience. He noted that as governor, he approved legislation that raised the minimum wage, created gun safety regulations and made same-sex marriage legal. He also touted his record on immigration, which includes passing the Dream Act that allows undocumented students to pay in-state tuition rates in Maryland.

Also on debate stage were former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb and Lincoln Chafee, a former governor and senator from Rhode Island.

Maria Galvan, an undocumented mother of two, said she would’ve liked the candidates to talk more about immigration. She watched the debate at an event hosted by the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA) in California, where Latinos make up nearly 39 percent of the population.

“I was expecting them to talk more about immigration reform,” Galvan said. “They didn’t say anything that was encouraging or anything that could give us hope for comprehensive immigration reform.”

Galvan can’t vote because she is undocumented. But that doesn’t stop her from encouraging Latinos who are U.S. citizens to register and vote. She said she and other undocumented immigrants have already been canvassing Latino neighborhoods and registering people to vote.

“Even though we can’t vote, we can encourage our community to go out and vote,” she said.

RELATED: Debate: How Will Dems Appeal to Latinos? We Asked the Campaigns

On immigration, almost all of the candidates said they are for immigration reform. Both Clinton and O’Malley said they would “go further” than Obama has on immigration. Sanders insisted he is for immigration reform but that he voted against immigration reform legislation in 2007 because he didn’t like the guest-worker provisions.

When Clinton was asked if she supports in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants, like Sanders and O’Malley, she said she would “support any state that takes that position.”

“It is very nice to hear those things they say about immigration but the truth is that we need action,” said Esteban Garces, Florida state director of Mi Familia Vota. “We want their words to turn into action. They didn’t give us any dates on when we would see an immigration reform passed.”

Garces watched the debate with several other Hispanics who gathered at a watch party in Orlando, Florida, a state where Latinos make up 24 percent of the population.

Several Hispanic women who attended the watch party in Orlando spoke to NBC News following the debate. They all agreed that this debate was more “cordial” and “substantive” than the last two Republican presidential debates. They also vowed to continue registering Latinos to vote.

“We want our community to become U.S. citizens and vote for their favorite candidate,” said Elizabeth Saenz, one of the Hispanic women who attended the debate watch party in Orlando. “It doesn’t matter what candidate or party they vote for. What matters is that they vote so that we make it clear that the Latino vote does matter."

Follow NBC News Latino on Facebook and Twitter.