New councilmember represents fellow immigrants and minority residents
By Winter Hawk
Rommel Sandino’s family is proud of him, and for good reason. Sandino, who represents Ward 5 on the Hyattsville City Council, recently said that his life story “is a representation of what one can obtain in this great country.” He was meeting with a group of Spanish-speaking residents at a city-sponsored event.
Sandino immigrated from Nicaragua with his mother and older brother when he was 4 years old. Undocumented for much of his life, Sandino gained citizenship in 2011 and was inspired to serve those in his community who faced similar life experiences.
Escaping Nicaragua and earning a degree
Sandino and his family immigrated to the U.S. to escape Nicaragua, a country that, at the time, was torn by the Contra War — a conflict between the government of Nicaragua and counter-revolutionary forces, which had financial backing from the United States.
Sandino’s parents sought to raise their children in a safe environment.
At the border, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detained Sandino, his mother and his brother, who was 6 years old at the time. They spent 7 months in family detention.
After their release, they reunited with Sandino’s father, who lived in Maryland.
“[Hyattsville] was the only place where my father could buy his first house,” Sandino said. “That’s what brought us here.”
Years later, Sandino bought the house from his parents. He and his family still live there today.
Sandino first truly felt the weight of being undocumented when he was graduating from high school.
“My friends that I had, at that point, known all my life … [were] sharing their plans to go off to college out-of-state or whatever their post-high school plans were,” he said. “And I would just lie because the reality was that I just didn’t have any plans … not having a Social Security [number], I just couldn’t pursue the dreams that I had in mind.”
Sandino continued his education at community college, where he studied political science and government. In 2007, Sandino transferred to the University of Maryland (UMD).
Sandino faced obstacles at UMD, though. “[I] was getting charged out-of-state tuition, regardless of the many years that my parents had been paying taxes,” he said. “Because of not having the right documentation, I was considered an international student.”
Sandino’s parents put all their savings into their son’s education, and he graduated in 2009 with a bachelor’s degree in government and politics and a minor in U.S. Latina/o Studies.
Serving the community
After graduating from UMD, Sandino started volunteering with CASA de Maryland, a Latino and immigration advocacy organization. He joined CASA’s tuition equity campaign to defend the Maryland Dream Act. The act, which was passed in 2011, grants in-state tuition discounts to undocumented immigrants.
“I got involved with CASA because of my personal experience,” Sandino noted.
Sandino is now a senior organizer for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, which supports comprehensive immigration reform and the civil rights of immigrants throughout the country.
“It’s all under the umbrella of fighting for dignity and justice for people of color in this country,” he said. “That’s what brought me to now bringing it back to the local again, that’s what really motivated me to run.”
Sandino first ran for the city council in 2015, earning 51 votes but losing to Ruth Ann Perry by 20 votes. In 2021, Sandino won with 147 votes, 89 more than the next most popular candidate, Patricia Page.
The Latino community makes up 37% of the city’s population, according to the 2019 U.S. Census. Yet, for many years, the Hyattsville City Council hasn’t had a Latino councilmember.
Brayan Perez, the city’s bilingual communications and outreach coordinator, said that Sandino is the city council’s first native Spanish speaker.
“[Sandino is] reaching out to our Latino community and making sure that the city will provide translation services,” said Councilmember Joseph Solomon (Ward 5).
Sandino credited his win to the volunteers who went door to door to campaign for him. “I had volunteers who believed in me,” said Sandino. “[They] went and spoke to the people, talking to the parents, talking to the youth.”
Serving as a councilmember
Sandino says he has three priorities as a councilmember: housing affordability, childcare affordability and aid for those struggling with issues related to mental health and/or substance abuse.
Sandino said he is specifically focusing on addressing the increases in rental and housing prices and the lack of Latino homeownership in the city, as described in the city’s April 2021 Housing Action Agenda.
According to the agenda, as the city tries to capitalize on its anticipated growth, low-income renters are concerned that decisions made by the city do not address the challenges they face.
Sandino plans to advocate for low-income renters on the city, county and state levels.
From 2010 to 2018, Latino homeownership in the city declined by 31%, while white homeownership increased by 11%, according to the agenda.
“There is something that we have to address there, right around homeownership, not only among Latinx but among families of color in the city,” Sandino noted. “My responsibility is to ensure that there is fair and equitable development in our city and in our community.”
Sandino thinks the National Housing Trust Fund could help renters. The fund provides development loans and grants to ensure availability of affordable rental units to very low-income households.
“I think that this could be a very good opportunity for the city to set aside a bucket of funds that could try to tackle and address the housing issues that we are experiencing,” Sandino said.
Sandino celebrates that the city allows undocumented residents and youth 16 and older to vote in city elections. During his campaign, he underscored the importance of voting and noted that “all the houses and all the neighbors were potential voters, every person was a potential voter.”
“We are actually expanding democracy,” he said. “Especially at the city level, where politics is local and has an immediate impact on the lives of families and of residents.”
Sandino is also focused on the inequities posed by the pandemic, noting the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on families of color.
“There are things we can do immediately that could make an immediate difference,” Sandino said. “That’s what makes me most excited: We are going to keep achieving great things as a city so that we come out of the pandemic a lot better — a lot stronger as a city.”