Immigrant groups’ aim: Turn marchers to voters
By Martin Kasindorf, USA TODAY
LOS ANGELES — The promise was splashed across signs that hundreds of thousands of immigrants carried in marches this spring: Hoy marchamos, mañana votamos.
The message in Spanish to Congress that “today we march, tomorrow we vote” was as American as balloons popping at a political convention.
For organizers of those nationwide demonstrations over changes to immigration law, mañana dawns with the Nov. 7 elections. Whatever action Congress may take, activists are pledging to mobilize 1 million new voters from newcomers to the USA: Hispanics, mostly, but also Koreans in Los Angeles, Hmong in Minnesota, Irish in New York City.
The “democracy summer” drive started July 1 by the We Are America Alliance offers voting and citizenship services to immigrants.
The alliance estimates that the nation’s immigrant population represents an untapped resource of 12.4 million potential new voters. According to a report prepared from U.S. government statistics and released last month by the alliance, they include: 9.4 million foreign-born residents eligible to become citizens; 1.9 million children of immigrants, ages 18-24, who have not yet registered to vote, and another 1.1 million children of immigrants who will become old enough to vote by the 2008 presidential election.
Applications for citizenship, up nearly 20% over last year, are a sign of immigrants’ growing determination to counter anti-immigrant legislation and rhetoric, organizers of the drive say.
“Our community will turn out when they are angry. And our community is very angry,” says Cristina Lopez, deputy executive director of the Center for Community Change.
“The marches made us visible,” says Renán Almendárez Coello, 51, a Spanish radio disc jockey known as El Cucuy (the Boogeyman), who is broadcasting appeals to register and vote. “Now, with the vote, we make ourselves present.”
We Are America — an alliance of immigrant-rights groups, labor unions, Catholic bishops and DJs such as El Cucuy— helped organize rallies in many cities in March, April and May that drew tens of thousands of people. On May 1, more than a half-million people marched in Los Angeles and another 400,000 in Chicago.
For decades, established organizations such as the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project have been initiating immigrant and native-born Hispanics into the democratic process. The political impact of these registration drives has been hard to discern because Hispanics have not voted as a bloc.
Now, as immigration takes front and center as a contentious national issue, We Are America is adding a new dimension: a drive to unite diverse ethnic groups to play a greater political role. Also new is the involvement of charities that have little experience in politics and usually focus on helping immigrants with legal advice or housing.
The immigrant-rights coalition opposes the House bill passed in December that would make illegal immigration a felony and would require a 700-mile fence along the U.S.-Mexican border. We Are America favors the Senate bill, passed in May, that combines tougher controls on borders and employers with a “guest worker” program and a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million immigrants illegally in the USA.
The two houses of Congress must reconcile their differences before passing a bill that the president would sign into law. Negotiating a final bill could be delayed until after Election Day in November.
Hispanics ‘are energized now’
How much impact We Are America will have in November is a subject of disagreement.
For Hispanics, turning out to vote has nothing to do with the specific bill Congress may eventually pass, says Sergio Bendixen, a Miami-based Democratic pollster. “This is about whether Hispanics are welcome, accepted and respected. They hear talk of … whether the Hispanic culture is ruining the United States. They are energized now..”
Rep. Henry Bonilla, R-Texas, who voted for the House bill and whose district already has 44% Hispanic voter registration, says he’s not worried about a surge of new registrants punishing him for his vote. “Every other year there’s someone that comes up with some threat or scare tactic,” he says. “I’ve been through seven elections. You listen to these things, and usually within a month they fade away.”
Rep. Tom Tancredo, a Colorado Republican who is vocal about cracking down on illegal immigration, says a display of immigrant voting clout could backfire. “It could be a rallying cry used by people on our side to show why every American who believes it’s important to secure the border should look at what the other side is doing, and get out and vote.”
California saw what can happen when foreign-born voters feel under attack. In 1994, Californians approved Proposition 187, endorsed by Republican Gov. Pete Wilson and later overturned in court, which would have denied a variety of state benefits to illegal immigrants.
At least 30 states this year have taken steps to crack down on illegal immigrants. Colorado, in a special legislative session that ended Monday, adopted a package of bills supported by the governor that would force a million people receiving state or federal aid to verify citizenship. Georgia enacted a law in April that will require contractors doing business with state or local governments to prove new workers are citizens.
In reaction to Proposition 187, California State Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez says, naturalizations of Mexican-born California residents surged more than tenfold from 14,824 in 1994 to 151,959 in 1996. Nationally, “the big Prop 187 surge” resulted in 1.1 million more Hispanic registered voters in 1996 than in 1994, says Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project.
“People decided after ’94 they were going to lose Social Security, Medicare, maybe even be asked to leave the country, if they didn’t become citizens,” Bendixen says. About 90% of the new Hispanic voters in California registered as Democrats and made California “a bluer state” to this day, he says.
Núñez credits that upheaval for elevating him and other Hispanic Democrats, including Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. “Now we can take this California experiment and move it across the country,” Núñez says.
Cecilia Muñz, vice president of the National Council of La Raza, says: “The potential for impact is greater now because Latinos are now a bigger presence across the country. It’s not just a few states anymore. … People understand this debate isn’t going away until there is some immigration reform. If I were a member of Congress, I would be very anxious about approaching the voters empty-handed.”
Gonzalez says the sponsor of the House bill, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., “is the new Pete Wilson” and will inspire at least 500,000 more Hispanics to go to the polls in November.
“What Republicans are looking at is a national (Proposition) 187 moment,” says Eliseo Medina, vice president of the 1.8-million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU). “The question is, did they learn anything from California? Or are they going to repeat the lessons of the past?”
Why drive may fall short
The impact of new immigrant voters this fall could fall short for several reasons:
•Legal restrictions. Labor unions, such as the SEIU, can be partisan, but hundreds of other groups in We Are America are non-profits that could lose tax-exempt status by endorsing or openly opposing candidates. The groups, plunging into elections for the first time, are expecting extra scrutiny, says Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.
•Money. We Are America has opened centers in churches, union halls and community centers, most in California, New York, Texas, Illinois and Arizona, says Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change.
Immigrants who are citizens can register there to vote in the November elections. People who have been legal residents for five years can fill out forms to start the citizenship process with hopes of voting in 2008, says Eun Sook Lee, executive director of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium.
The alliance needs to raise $20 million to register and mobilize 1 million new voters, Gonzalez says. It’s “a tall order” but can be done if unions and Spanish-language TV networks ante up, he says.
•Resistant audiences. Whether native- or foreign-born, Hispanics and Asian-Americans have low turnout at the polls. In 2004, 67% of voting-age white citizens and 60% of voting-eligible African- Americans voted, but only 47% of Hispanics and 44% of Asian-Americans did.
•Few targets. “There are very few congressional seats where the member takes an anti-immigrant stand and they have a large Latino immigrant constituency,” says Matt Barreto, a University of Washington political scientist. Sensenbrenner’s House district, for example, is only 2.2% Hispanic.
The “overwhelming majority” of the nation’s 9.3 million Hispanic registered voters “don’t have anybody to backlash against,” Barreto says. “If you’re mad at Sensenbrenner, what do you do — move into his district?”
Tancredo says he is feeling no heat in his suburban Denver district, which is 5.7% Hispanic. “I’m sure there are some of my colleagues who feel more insecure in that regard,” he says. “To those who are getting a little weak-kneed about this, I counsel that Hispanics do not vote monolithically.”
Tancredo points out that Arizona’s Proposition 200, which passed in 2004 and denied state benefits to illegal immigrants, got 47% of the Hispanic vote.
Republicans have a successful record of competing for Hispanic votes. The Bush and Kerry campaigns in 2004 battled over a potential Hispanic swing vote in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada and Florida. Bush won all four states.
Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics, is skeptical of We Are America. “Even if they registered a million voters and could get them to the polls, most of these voters are going to be in places where they will have no impact whatever,” Sabato says. “There will be a tiny number in a handful of places where it could make a difference.”
Still, the SEIU’s Medina says, “There are 10 or 15 districts where there are enough Latino voters where you can make a difference.”
Medina says the big impact of registering new voters won’t be felt until 2008. We Are America wants “a big impact nationally” in 2008, not just in California, Texas and Florida, but in emerging “big immigrant states,” including North Carolina and Georgia, he says.
The long-term battle isn’t merely about immigration, Medina says. “We know we’re not going to have a success with health access issues or wages or workers’ rights unless we can change the electorate.
“Just winning an immigration reform (law) is not a solution, because there are millions of Americans living in poverty. The real solution is a living wage, affording a home. That’s the American dream.”