By Carmen Sesin —NBC News
As Republican candidates debate Wednesday in Miami, former President Donald Trump will hold a rally not so far away, in a city unknown to many in the country: Hialeah.
While the city's choice may surprise some, it's part of Trump's efforts to appeal to the Latino vote in Florida.
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Hialeah, a Republican stronghold on the outskirts of Miami, is a working-class city open to immigrants. Because the city is almost entirely Hispanic, it is considered one of the least diverse in the United States. More than 95% of its residents identify as Latino. Almost three-quarters were born in another country and Spanish is the prevailing language.
The capital of the Cuban exile
Hialeah has grown rapidly since the 1960s, when Cubans began settling in the area after Castro's 1959 revolution and has seen subsequent waves of immigration from Cuba and other Latin American countries.
Wendy Portilla, 44, of Hialeah, says she would like Trump to be president again, and that the businessman chose the perfect venue for his rally. "It's my people," he said in Spanish.
Portilla came from Cuba 20 years ago and works in a coffee shop while studying to be a massage therapist. She disagreed with Trump's increased sanctions on Cuba during his years as president, but for her the U.S. economy is more important.
"Things went better under Trump. People here are going through hard times," he said. "The price of food and rent needs to come down."
Why did Trump choose Hialeah for his rally?
"Trump likes to be loved," said a Republican strategist who does not endorse Trump in the Republican primary. "That's where he had his best performance in Miami Dade County in 2020."
Hialeah is located in Miami-Dade County, where voters have swung to the right since the 2016 election. That year, Sen. Marco Rubio beat Trump in the Republican primary, becoming the only Florida county Trump didn't win.
Subsequently, in the 2016 presidential election, Trump lost in Miami-Dade County to then-Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton by about 30 points.
Donald Trump supporters in Hialeah on November 8, 2023.Alfredo Peñas / Noticias Telemundo
Four years later, in 2020, Trump made significant gains among Latino voters, with Joe Biden winning the Hispanic county by just 7 percentage points.
The Republican strategist also noted that "a portion of the Republican electorate likes to hear that their candidates are popular with minorities."
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About a dozen Latino voters in Miami-Dade County with whom NBC News spoke seemed indifferent to Trump's numerous allegations at the state and federal level. These include charges of conspiracy to defraud the country and impede the peaceful transfer of presidential power to Biden.
In Georgia, Trump's former lawyers have pleaded guilty to complicity in false statements in an effort to overturn the certified results of Biden's victory in the state.
Trump and the Courtship of Latinos
As president, Trump assiduously courted Latinos in Florida. When he became the first former president to face federal charges in a Miami court in June, he made a stop at the iconic Cuban restaurant Versailles, where he was applauded by his supporters.
It's a big change from his 2016 campaign, when Trump didn't have strong support among Hispanics in Miami Dade County.
But once he took office, Trump and senior administration officials spent time in the county and focused primarily on appealing to Hispanic voter groups, including Cuban-Americans, Venezuelans, Nicaraguans and Colombians.
While Cuban-Americans have tended to vote Republican and have supported hard-line stances toward Cuba, about half of Florida's Cuban-American voters supported President Barack Obama in 2012.
After Trump ended up dramatically improving his support among Latinos in Florida in the 2020 election, Republicans have made great strides among the state's Hispanic groups. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, the current presidential candidate, became the first Republican governor in 20 years to win Miami-Dade's traditionally blue county. But Trump had already helped pave the way.
Latinos Who Support Trump
Yubisay Camero, 48, a Republican who arrived from Venezuela in 2012, says she likes DeSantis and his "family values," but prefers Trump for the presidency because of his national and international "experience."
Trump supporters attend rally in Hialeah on Nov. 8, 2022.Alfredo Peñas / Noticias Telemundo
"I like that Trump has always avoided wars," said Camero, who owns businesses, including an electronics store. "I don't like that the U.S. is involved in conflicts between Israel and Gaza, as well as between Russia and Ukraine. Trump had a way of avoiding conflict."
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He also cited the economy as one of the reasons he favors Trump, saying, "He quickly got the economy in order while he was president."
Jose Matos, 70, an electrical contractor who has lived in the U.S. since 1992, said the best option right now is Trump because "he has the experience necessary to stabilize the economy." Matos believes DeSantis "has a good future," but said the recent Republican debate showed he "doesn't have enough experience."
Matos also said that Trump avoided conflict and that Biden is spending "billions of our taxpayer money" on them.
Polls favor the former president
Most polls put Trump about 40 points ahead on average of his rivals, and for Latinos in Florida, he is also the front-runner among Republican candidates. Many of the state's Republican elected officials have endorsed Trump for the Republican nomination. Florida Sen. Rick Scott recently announced that he is endorsing Trump. A majority of Florida's Republican congressional delegation has also backed the businessman.
Although the primary election has not yet begun, the Biden campaign told NBC News that it will "strategically put up billboards" in Hialeah ahead of Trump's expected rally, attacking "MAGA Republicans" for "higher costs, for taking away freedoms, banning abortion, and lining special interest pockets at the expense of middle-class families." according to Biden-Harris campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez.
The Biden Administration has been touting that its policies have benefited Hispanics, including "the lowest Latino unemployment rate on record," as well as the "fastest rate of Hispanic-owned business creation" in more than a decade, a 53% increase in health care coverage from 2020 to 2022, and the reduction of Latino child poverty rates.
But Miami-Dade County voters who back Trump, and who spoke to NBC News, echo the sentiments of voters in five battleground states where a New York Times/Siena College poll found Trump ahead of Biden, and where Biden's "lead among Hispanic voters has shrunk to single digits."
Bertica Cabrera Morris, a veteran Orlando-based Republican strategist who has yet to endorse any of the Republican presidential candidates, believes Latinos like Trump over other Republican hopefuls because they already know him and feel safe with him.
"I think Hispanics feel safe with a person who isn't afraid to speak up. Right now we feel very vulnerable with the wars that are happening," he said. The state of the economy is also profoundly affecting Hispanics who remember better times under Trump's presidency, he said.
"A lot of Latinos in Florida come from countries plagued by violence and economic crises with extremely high inflation," Cabrera Morris said. "They're looking for stability in the United States."
"We have to wait for the primaries anyway because the polls have been wrong in the past," he added.