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Organizers of a rally this week tried to harness the struggles of York County's Puerto Rican and Latino residents and focus their attention on voting advocacy for the November elections.

The Monday, July 23, event sponsored by CASA, a regional immigrant advocacy organization with a branch in York City, brought state and federal politicians and more than 150 individuals from throughout Pennsylvania to Calvary United Methodist Church in York.

"If you don't register to vote, it doesn't matter," Democratic lieutenant governor candidate John Fetterman told the crowd. "It is all on the line."

Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., a congressional powerhouse for Puerto Rican relief efforts, joined Fetterman and members of Gov. Tom Wolf's Cabinet.

Although CASA Executive Director Gustavo Torres was present, Patricia Zapata, of York City, largely took over the speaking role during the rally.

Zapata left Puerto Rico and came to York last year along with the other 2,000 U.S. territory residents who migrated to Pennsylvania after Hurricane Maria.

The first thing she did was register to vote, she said.

"We need to make our voices heard, and we're here to fight for a better future for our families," she said. "We want to make sure that people in Puerto Rico have housing and support and that those here in Pennsylvania have jobs and safety."

Zapata added that the November elections can change "many things for our families."

The message carries plenty of weight in York County, especially in the city.

Demographics: There, 30.9 percent of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, nearly double since the 2000 census, when only 17.9 percent of city residents identified as such.

In the county, 7.2 percent of residents identify as Latino or Hispanic, more than double the percentage from the 2000 census, when 2.96 percent of the population identified as such.

Neither statistic includes those who moved here after being displaced by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year.

Effects of Hurricane Maria: At the rally, Eduardo Salgado, who came to Pennsylvania from Puerto Rico in October 2017, recalled leaving his home after the hurricane.

"Maria doesn't deserve for us to keep mentioning her," he said. "Puerto Rico didn't just go through a hurricane; what happened there was a war."

Salgado, although visibly upset, focused on the future.

"When you see the aftermath of what happened, there are no words," he said. "David faced a great giant, and when you look at our community, we can beat this giant. We defend Puerto Rico, and that's why we're here."

Others displaced by the hurricane, as well as some who immigrated from different Latin American countries, also spoke at the rally.

Voting Democrat: The message of pain and suffering along with hope loudly reverberated through the pews. Then, the energy nearly exclusively was redirected to voting advocacy.

For the rest of the night, attendees screamed "vota," or "vote." 

More specifically, vote for Democrats.

Norman Bristol, director of special projects for the Department of State, briefly touched on his experiences with a family living in Puerto Rico during the hurricane before hinting at the changes that need to be made.

Most noticeably, he emphasized the importance of voting in order to force policy changes affecting the Latino community.

"We are going to make sure that Pennsylvania leads the way and provides the Latino community with the best we have," he said. "We have a monster in the White House who destroyed DACA and didn't respond to Puerto Rico during the crisis. That's why we need to register to vote."

New policy is pending: Luz Colon, director of Wolf's commission on Latino affairs, also teased a new Wolf policy that would affect the immigrant community.

"In response to request from CASA and other organizations, the governor's office will be establishing a clear policy for the state police," she said. "It will ensure that no person is threatened in a discriminatory way and that our state police are focusing our resources on keeping us safe and not facilitating the deportation of our neighbors."

Colon added that the state needs to make sure the police protect the immigrant population "in a climate where communities feel divided and many Latinos are increasingly scared to contact the police."

"Under this policy, state police will serve to support victims of crimes as they always have and not use their powers to detain individuals," she said.

JJ Abbott, Wolf's spokesman, confirmed that the policy was in its planning stages.

"Leadership at the state police agree there is a need for stronger uniform procedures addressing state police requests for assistance from outside agencies, including ICE, especially given the new pressure on state and local agencies from the federal government," he said.

'All on the line': Fetterman, Wolf's running mate, attended the rally with his wife, Gisele Fetterman, who moved to the United States from Brazil when she was 9 years old.

He used the absence of GOP gubernatorial candidate Scott Wagner to make a case for Wolf's re-election and as a reason why Latinos need to vote in the upcoming general elections.

Organizers said Wagner and Jeff Bartos, his running mate, were invited to the meeting but didn't attend.

"Wagner isn't here because he doesn't care," Fetterman said. "If Wagner were to change the policy of state police like it was announced Wolf will, he would weaponize them."

The lieutenant governor hopeful urged those in attendance to vote in order to prevent Wagner's "mean" qualities from making it into the governor's office.

Fetterman added that if elected, the second lady of Pennsylvania would be a "former 'Dreamer' and fierce advocate of Latinos." 

Gutierrez, the keynote speaker at the event, reiterated the pain of the Latino community and urged those present to vote in November.

"Every day I have been in Congress, I've fought for justice for our community," Gutierrez said. "I'm here to continue the fight for justice. I live in Chicago, but for me, I'm Puerto Rican."

While the congressman said his family doesn't have to worry about him, other families have a different experience.

"Thousands of children live in fear that their parents will be taken away," he said. "I will not rest until each father and mother can guarantee they will return when they leave the house. Now is the time to stop the deportation and separation."

Then, transitioning into voting advocacy, he drew a line between Democrats such as himself and Republicans.

"There are two parties, two points of view, and they're both very distinct," he said. "If we vote in November, we can put an end to this. You have big responsibilities in November."

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