Latinos Flex Political Power

By Kent Paterson

Latino voters not only were pivotal in Barack Obama’s historic presidential win, but they were crucial in expanding the Democratic Party’s control of the US Congress. By a margin of more than two to one, Latinos voted for Obama over McCain, with the difference in favor of the Democrat even greater in the segment of the community that Latino activists call New American voters, or post-1965 immigrants and their children.

Maria Elena Salinas, the popular news anchor on the Spanish-language television Univision, proclaimed Latinos the “new political force of the 21st century” in the United States. Exceeding predictions, the Latino voter turnout nearly doubled from 5.9 million voters in 2000 to almost 10 million in 2008.

Pro-Obama Latino activists were barely rested from victory celebrations when they jumped back into the political game. The National Hispanic Leadership Agenda, a Beltway association made up of the National Council for La Raza (NCLR), Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund and two dozen other Latino civil rights organizations, quickly urged the new president-elect to appoint Latinos to his cabinet. In a letter to Obama, the group supported New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson to head the State Department.

Obama named Richardson, who was a promoter of the North American Free Trade Agreement and served as US ambassador and energy secretary under Bill Clinton, to be Obama’s commerce secretary.

Separately, Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza (NCLR) said Latinos were ready to begin tackling the big problems that afflict the country. “This demonstrates our eagerness to work in partnership with this administration to address key concerns like the economy, health care and immigration reform.”

While legalizing undocumented members of their community is far from the sole concern of Latinos, the issue will be a key test of the Obama administration’s commitment to the community. Going into the election, many activists defined immigration reform as a “threshold” issue that motivated many people into the voting booth for the first time.

“I think we can conclude that the immigration issue was very important for all Hispanic voters and united them in this election,” asserted Florida-based pollster Sergio Bendixen, whose firm conducted election-day exit polls in Miami and Los Angeles.

After the massive pro-immigrant rallies of 2006, citizenship and voter registration drives sponsored by the We Are America Alliance and other organizations encouraged more than one million people to swear oaths of citizenship and inspired more than 500,000 to sign voter registration forms, according to organizers.

The Alliance credited its partners for registering more than 128,000 new immigrant voters in the swing states of New Mexico, Colorado and Nevada.

In an Albuquerque speech during the closing days of the campaign, Obama advocated citizenship for undocumented residents who pay fines, wait in line behind legal applicants and learn English. Further, he vowed to work with Gov. Richardson for “secure borders” and comprehensive immigration reform. “(Undocumented immigrants) broke the law and we can’t excuse that, but we can’t deport 12 million people,” Obama said.

But immigration reform, which proved impossible on Capitol Hill in 2007, could still be tricky in 2009. According to immigration analyst Tom Barry of Americas Policy, anti-legalization forces like the group Numbers USA are not throwing in the towel. Instead, they are reframing their argument to focus on economic questions, claiming legalizing undocumented immigrants will take sorely needed jobs away from US workers during a time of economic recession.

And with former Illinois Congressman Rahm Emanuel’s appointment as the next White House chief of staff, a big question is whether Emanuel’s earlier contention that immigration reform constituted the “third rail of American politics” will indeed become the new administration’s track as it tucks away the issue in a sack of hot potatoes on a slow-moving caboose.

On the other hand, as the 2008 Latino electoral turn-out demonstrated, the new administration will ignore immigration reform at its own political peril. Coalesced into the National Capital Immigrant Coalition and the Fair Immigration Reform Movement, activists are mobilizing for a Jan. 21 demonstration in Washington, D.C., to demand legalization and a halt to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) mass round-ups of undocumented workers.

“We have to take this opportunity to once again urge for an immediate stop of ICE raids in our immigrant communities,” said Marcela Diaz, executive director of the New Mexico-based Somos un Pueblo community organization and a supporter of the Jan. 21 march. ICE raids in New Mexico and elsewhere have “left too many children without parents, businesses without workers, and a community fearful,” Diaz said.

For Frank Sharry, executive director of the America’s Voice immigrant advocacy organization, the ball is now in the Democrats’ court to achieve “real results” on issues like immigration. Failure to deliver, Sharry warned, “risks a backlash from swing voters and Latinos who want action, particularly if the Republican Party can rehabilitate its image with these groups.”

Kent Paterson is a freelance journalist who divides his time between Mexico and the US Southwest.

From The Progressive Populist, Jan. 1-15, 2009

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