In Pa. visit, Jill Biden asks Allentown’s Hispanics to put faith in husband to deliver on promises

‘I want to tell you there is hope,’ Biden said during a visit to The Learning Hub, a Head Start facility located in Center City Allentown. ‘That’s why we are fighting for this infrastructure plan.’

By: - October 13, 2021 5:57 pm

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden observes children making a design on a interactive smart table in The Learning Hub’s Tech Innovation Lab (Capital-Star photo by Katherine Reinhard).

By Katherine Reinhard

ALLENTOWN, Pa. — With her husband’s polling numbers sinking over his stalled agenda, First Lady Dr. Jill Biden asked Hispanics in Allentown on Wednesday to keep their faith that President Joe Biden will deliver on his promise to make their communities front and center of his economic recovery plan.

“I want to tell you there is hope,” Biden said during a visit to The Learning Hub, a Head Start facility located in Center City Allentown. “That’s why we are fighting for this infrastructure plan. “

Biden pointed out that the president’s American Rescue Plan was the first part of that effort, giving eligible persons $1,400, extending unemployment insurance, increasing child tax, earned income and child and dependent care tax credits and providing help to small businesses.

Now, she said, her husband is working to pass the infrastructure bill or American Jobs Plan, which passed the Senate with bipartisan support but is hung up in the House amid  fighting in the Democratic majority.   

“The Latino community is really important to me and to Joe,” she said.

Biden’s afternoon stop in Allentown was part of the listening sessions she is holding for National Hispanic Heritage Month, which ends Friday.  

She was in Kansas City, Kan., on Tuesday and in Chicago earlier Wednesday to hold what she is calling charlas – chats in Spanish.

Accompanying her in Allentown was U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, one of President Biden’s four Hispanic cabinet secretaries, U.S. Rep. Susan Wild, D-7th District,  and Gov. Tom Wolf.

The Learning Hub was a fitting choice for Biden’s advocacy of education.  Biden, who holds a doctoral degree in education, continues to teach English and writing at Northern Virginia Community College.

The Learning Hub, which opened in 2018, is among 50 Head Start classrooms in the Lehigh Valley serving at-risk, children ages 3-4 in Allentown. It has eight classrooms and a Tech Innovation Lab featuring a wind tunnel, computers, interactive touch table and 3-D printer.

During her time at The Learning Hub, Biden watched two mini lessons with 3- and 4-year-olds where one group worked on their motor skills by dancing to the song “The Penguin Dance,” and others made a design on an interactive touch table.

She sat down with four area Hispanics who shared their stories and concerns they wanted Biden to tell her husband.   

The four included Victoria Montero, executive director of the Hispanic Center Lehigh Valley and manager of health equity initiatives at St. Luke’s University Health Network; Brenda Fernandez, founder, SELF!, a non-profit that helps women who are re-entering society after incarceration; Juan Martinez, owner of Martinez Hospitality, which includes the Don Juan Mex Grill chain in the Lehigh Valley; and Jessica Rodriguez-Colon, case manager for Valley Youth House’s Truancy Intervention Program, and vice chair of the Puertorrican Culture Preservation Inc.  

The four spoke of early struggles with poverty and language barriers and how nonprofits and churches helped along the way, providing food and Christmas presents. Education was also key with Martinez and Montero both saying community college was part of their journey – which pleased Biden. 

They also talked about their drive to help others succeed. 

“We like to give back,” said Martinez. “I remember where I came from.”

Becerra specifically wanted to hear about their experiences with the pandemic. 

Montero said the Hispanic Center saw a big increase in demand for services, especially housing. The center also became a vaccination site as a way to build trust in the vaccine.

When it came to what they wanted the president to know, Montero, Fernandez and Rodriguez-Colon agreed that affordable housing was among the most pressing problems.

“There is just no housing right now,” said Rodriguez-Colon.

Biden said the American Jobs Plan, which would increase money for housing vouchers, would help. “It’s a big part of the bill,” she said.

The First Lady’s listening tour comes as her husband’s popularity falls amid his party’s infighting.

A new Pew Research Center poll showed the president’s overall approval rating sinking to 44% with ratings among Hispanics dropping 16 points, according to The Washington Post.

While Biden won the Latino vote in the November 2020 presidential election, former President Donald Trump gained in the demographic.

That gain led the national GOP to start opening Hispanic community centers in Florida, Wisconsin and Texas as part of an early outreach effort, according to the Colorado Springs Gazette.

“The president’s diminished support among Hispanic voters has been one of the key factors in his sluggish approval ratings, and thus outreach to this group is an essential element in bringing up his overall standing,” Chris Borick, a pollster and political analyst at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, told the Capital-Star.

 Borick said the Lehigh Valley is one of the key regions in Pennsylvania, which itself is a key state in American politics.  

Indeed, the number of Hispanics in Allentown grew to 68,000 people in 2020, making them the majority with 54% of the city’s population, according to an analysis of U.S. Census data by The Morning Call of Allentown.

“Thus, the First Ladies’ trip here makes clear political sense as the administration looks to shore up support for its policy agenda,” Borick said.

Biden said she was grateful for the support of the Hispanic community and said her visit in Allentown has shown her how much all their interests intersect.  

“One thing that we do celebrate is diversity,” she said. “We have great support here in Pennsylvania from the Latino community.”

 Correspondent Katherine Reinhard covers the Lehigh Valley for the Capital-Star.

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