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Fernando Treviño poses in front of Philadelphia's City Hall. Photo: Emily Neil/AL DÍA News.
Fernando Treviño poses in front of Philadelphia's City Hall. Photo: Emily Neil/AL DÍA News.

Back to the basics, but with a global vision: Fernando Treviño

Treviño is running to fill one of the seven at-large seats on City Council. Should he win, he could become the second Latino on the 17-person legislative body,…

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May 19th, 2022

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Instead of waiting for the perfect City Council candidate to come along, Fernando Treviño thought, why not himself?

He’s not saying he’s perfect - but he will be talking about what he wants to talk about.

For Philly, this means a winter and spring of campaigning on a platform trying to refocus the city on the everyday problems that Treviño feels get overlooked all too often - and he wants to get creative in looking for answers.

“We love to talk about the big, progressive long term issues and solutions. That’s all nice and dandy and I’m all for it, but we’re forgetting about the day to day stuff,” Treviño told AL DÍA.

“We’re forgetting how to clean the streets, how to fix potholes, how to protect an eight-year-old from bullying for months,” he continued, referencing a frustrating experience he recounted of his daughter being bullied in school. “It’s just the most basic stuff that we’re not doing.”

City Council could use some urgency, too, Treviño believes.

“It’s time to light a fire under their asses and do something more. We have to.”

Before Philly: Mexico and South Texas

Treviño, 42, has lived and worked the American immigration system that dominates political discourse in the country today.

He was born in the southwestern Mexican state of Chiapas, which sits along the country’s border with Guatemala. At eight years old, he moved to the northeastern state of Tamaulipas, where he grew up “literally half a block away from the Rio Grande” river separating Mexico from Texas.

After attending law school and working in political organizing in Mexico in the late 1990s, Treviño went to work as a staff attorney for Mexico’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Eagle Pass, Texas - home to the highest number of deportations, and the most deaths among people trying to cross the border into the U.S. at the time, he said.

The experience marked him for life.

“Every single morning, I would drive to the border patrol station and pick [up] all of the minors that were detained, and then I would drive them back to Mexico with family services in Mexico so we would help them reunify with their families after being separated,” he explained.

He identified three to four bodies a week, he said. This meant arriving at the scene to take pictures, go through personal belongings, and examine tattoos and any distinguishing clothing.

He got used to seeing the dead bodies, as awful as it sounds, and he was the one calling to notify family members in Mexico, too.

“I would break every single time after that phone call,” he said.

“It was very formal, very professional - as soon as I was over with the phone call, I’d just crash and start crying,” he added. “It was very difficult to do.”

“Politics all the way”

Treviño arrived in Philadelphia in 2002. He worked for the Mexican consulate here for five years, before accepting an offer to join the U.S. federal public defender’s office in Harrisburg.

Two weeks after he was hired for the new job, Treviño was fired - due to circumstances out of his control.

Relations between Mexico and the U.S. were strained because of Mexico’s refusal to support the Iraq War. As a result, Treviño, who was a permanent resident at the time, was no longer eligible for the position.

The firing hit him hard - he felt depressed, he said, not wanting to wake up.

“If a decision that happened at the UN level - this is the UN Security Council - trickled all the way down to Washington, Harrisburg, Philly, Fernando, and really messed up with my plans and my life, I just started thinking, what else is happening in Washington, what else is happening in Harrisburg, and even here in City Council, that is messing with people’s everyday lives?” he said.

That’s when he decided that he wanted to drop his legal career, and return to political organizing.

After two years working in Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner’s former law office,  Treviño took a position with Democracia USA, and then with the National Council of La Raza, mobilizing the Latino vote in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Then, in 2012, the Obama campaign rang, offering him a job heading voter outreach efforts across Pennsylvania.  

It was the call that changed his life, Treviño said.

“They told me, ‘We love what you did for Latinos, we love what you have done, so now we need you to replicate it for every minority group,’” he said.

Which he did. Treviño helped maintain turnout levels among African Americans, women and young voters as compared with 2008 levels, and he helped drive the Latino vote up by 50 percent.

“The Latino vote kicked ass,” he recalled, requesting his French be pardoned.

From that point on, it was “politics all the way” for Treviño.

Immigration under Nutter

After Obama’s reelection, Treviño wanted to move to Washington, D.C. to work in the administration, but then-Mayor Michael Nutter convinced him to stay in the City of Brotherly Love. Nutter had plans to open an office dedicated to immigrant affairs, and he wanted Treviño to be involved.

Treviño was convinced, and he saw an opening to push Nutter further on Philadelphia’s immigration policies - including putting an end to Philadelphia’s cooperation with the federal office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

So, in March, 2013, he began work as deputy executive director of Philadelphia’s new Office of Immigrant and Multicultural Affairs, an office he held for almost three years.

In April, 2014, Nutter signed an executive order terminating Philadelphia’s relationship with ICE.

“That was another life changing moment for me. It was a drop-the-mic moment. I could [have] resigned that day and [been] a happy man,” he recalled.

“Just to get years and years of deportations, non-criminal charges, separation of families - to get that done, we stopped at least for those two or three years, 80-85 percent of the deportations that were happening in Philadelphia.”

According to Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse (TRAC), deportations out of Philadelphia decreased from 308 in fiscal year 2013 to 74 in 2014, 44 in 2015, and 39 in 2016.

The issues

Before deciding to run for City Council, Treviño spent a year consulting for political campaigns in Central and South America, including presidential races in Bolivia and Paraguay, and a senatorial race in Puebla, Mexico.

He has made this international experience a focal point of his campaign - Philadelphia, after all, has lost touch with its foreign friends, he believes.

“I noticed a trend that there are cities around the world that [have] already solved the issues that are affecting us right now. Trash collection - the simplest stuff - to public safety, and we’re not talking to them,” he said.

“Mayor Kenney has been great about protecting the rights of immigrants and continuing what we started with Mayor Nutter, but, to be honest, his international work has lost a little bit of focus,” he added.

Treviño suggested that Philly could, for example, look to Frankfurt, Germany, a sister city, to help solve its surging violence issues, given Frankfurt’s standing as one of the world’s safest cities, according to the Economist.

“Our kids are growing up, playing on the streets [among homelessness], they’re running around needles and all of the stuff, and the city is not doing enough. I’m not saying they’re not doing anything, but we’re not doing enough,” Treviño lamented.

He promotes the idea of seeking public-private partnerships to address Philadelphia’s polluted streets. He stressed this idea to help improve the city’s public schools, as well.

On opioids, Treviño agrees with the mayor’s emergency response task force to address the crisis, but he wishes it had been created “much much earlier.”

He was noncommittal on safe injection sites.

“I need to learn a little bit more [about safe injection sites], because as a concept it makes sense when you talk about it city-wide,” he said. “But, when you analyze the specific community that it is affecting, there have to be a [few] things we take care of before we say that, yes, that’s the best way to go.”

No matter the issue, however, Treviño goes back to the international relationships.

“Beyond helping the vulnerable community of undocumented immigrants, we need to work with the international community to take advantage of their knowledge back home,” he said.

“The idea [that] the only way we’re going to solve a local issue is finding solutions locally - it’s so old school and old fashioned that it’s frustrating,” he added.

The Trump factor

“I am everything that President Trump hates,” Treviño says in his campaign announcement video.

Describing the president as the “clown in Washington,” Treviño makes it clear that Trump —who from the moment he announced his presidential bid in 2015 has disparaged Mexicans and Latinos in the U.S. — is part of what has motivated him to run.

“For me, it is important to talk about President Trump, and what his policies are, and what he stands for, because even when his policies are at the national level, the same communities are being left behind in Philadelphia,” Treviño said.

Moreover, Treviño notes that support for the president in Philadelphia outweighs the share of Latinos not just statewide, but in Philadelphia, too.

“Trump voters are larger and have more influence than Latinos in the city. For me, that’s a problem. For me, that’s an issue,” he said.

Trump won 15 percent of the Philadelphia vote in 2016. Latinos, meanwhile, make up roughly 14 percent of the city, according to a July 2016 estimate.

“If this sounds like I’m trying to talk about identity politics, or racial politics, it’s because I am. I have to be very honest,” he added.

Treviño is running to fill one of the seven at-large seats on City Council. Should he win, he could become the second Latino on the 17-person legislative body, and its only immigrant.

“If I’m elected...it would send a very strong message not only [here] in Philadelphia, but also to Washington,” Treviño said.

“Like, hey, Philly’s not going to mess around with you.”

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