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Complications, Contradictions In A Fla. Swing County

Sofia Martinez, 40, is a registered nurse in Plant City, Fla., who supports both the DREAM Act and Republican Mitt Romney, who says he would veto it.
Becky Lettenberger
Sofia Martinez, 40, is a registered nurse in Plant City, Fla., who supports both the DREAM Act and Republican Mitt Romney, who says he would veto it.

As the presidential election nears, Morning Edition has begun a series of reports from an iconic American corner: First and Main. Several times in the next few months, we'll travel to a battleground state, then to a vital county in each state. In that county, we find a starting point for our visit: First and Main streets, the intersection of politics and real life.

Sofia Martinez was a kid when she began what you could call her life on the road.

"I can remember when my dad used to work in a factory in Toledo, Ohio, lost his job, and then that's when we started becoming migrant families — I was around 9 years old," she says. "It was in the third grade."

She still remembers the crops. She still remembers the seasons of a life lived North and South.

She'd begin the school year in Ohio.

"Right around October-November, we would get pulled out of school, come down here to Florida and start with orange groves, grapefruit, and then strawberry and then tomatoes.

"And then right around April or May, head back up to Ohio to do the whole thing all over again."

These days, Martinez has settled down. She got an education and has a job in Plant City, Fla.

That town is part of Hillsborough County, a swing county in the political battleground of Florida. Beginning at the intersection of First and Main in suburban Tampa, we've traveled across the county, meeting voters where they live, listening to them think, and letting them open a door into their lives.

'Core Values'

Martinez is a nurse practitioner in a pediatrics clinic, part of a community health chain called Suncoast. Many patients come from migrant families.

Martinez is Mexican-American. She was born in the United States, but many of her patients were not.

On the morning we visited, one of her patients was a 3-day-old baby whose father had just been deported.

"Sad," she says. But "common, very common."

Her experience leads her to support the DREAM Act — a proposal that would make it easier for children brought to the U.S. illegally to become citizens.

"Those students grow up here — maybe [are] here all their life. [They] never even know or heard or remember Mexico or wherever they're from," she says. "They can't go to college; they can't get a driver's license. ... And that's a DREAM Act I hope one day won't be a dream, and a lot of these kids can do what I did, and make something of themselves."

President Obama's administration has said it will stop deporting many young people, whether the DREAM Act is passed or not. His Republican rival, Mitt Romney, has spoken of vetoing the measure and of pushing illegal immigrants to "self-deport."

Martinez says she believes the country would do better if it returned to "some basic core values."
Becky Lettenberger / NPR
Martinez says she believes the country would do better if it returned to "some basic core values."

But that issue will not determine how Martinez votes.

"From my core values, what my core values are, I will be voting Republican," she says.

'Sign The DREAM Act'

Martinez was raised Catholic, is now Baptist, and is the mother of two daughters.

"Sometimes the stories that come back from school — even the teacher isn't giving my child a good moral compass or example," she says. "The desensitization of our children to violence and sex, it's hard.

"And hopefully public school won't get any worse than it already is."

One of Martinez's co-workers joined our conversation. She said Romney is closer to what she calls "God's values," and mentioned Obama's support for gay marriage.

To which Martinez adds: "I don't hate Obama by any means. You know, he has done an OK job. I don't think he has done a terrible job. I don't think he's, you know, put our country in the sewer by any means.

"But for me, I mean, I would think that if the country got back to some basic core values, maybe we'd all do a lot better."

To those who would argue that the Democrats are the ones who speak up for immigrants and advocate for the DREAM Act, Martinez says: "Unfortunately, I don't think either party makes the best advocacy for migrants or farm workers.

"The Democrats have touted a lot about their DREAM Act and maybe, you know, doing a lot of promises. But still the DREAM Act has been going on for how long and still hasn't been in effect."

Martinez serves as a reminder about the huge, and growing, Hispanic vote. While the group leans Democratic, it's not monolithic. And while analysts expect Obama to win Hispanics, the question is by how much.

The margin matters in a closely divided state like Florida.

When it comes time to count the votes in Hillsborough County, Romney can count on Martinez. But if he should campaign here, he should not count on her to stay quiet about that issue that touches her life.

If either candidate walked through the door, Martinez knows what she'd tell him: "Sign the DREAM Act, that's what I would say. Sign the DREAM Act."

If her view seems contradictory, that's common among voters, as they consider many issues in Hillsborough County.

Maybe it's understandable.

Florida voters, like voters everywhere, are responding to life in a complicated nation. It was the American poet Walt Whitman who wrote: "Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes."

It's only at election time that multitudes are asked to choose between parties that enforce their rigid visions of a small and divided world.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.