April 28, 2006

Can the Immigrant Rights Movement Be Channeled into Votes?

By Mindy Farabee
Eastern Group Publications

LOS ANGELES — This year, as a slate of state and national elections coincide in a passionate debate over the direction of immigration reform, a new energy among Latino voters could shape up to make a big impact at the ballot box.

“With the momentum created by the immigration debate, Latino voters will vote in good numbers this November,” says Carlos Antonio H. Vaquerano, founder and executive director of the Salvadoran American Leadership and Education Fund [SALEF], a non-partisan organization promoting civic participation among the Latino population. “And we’ll vote for those candidates who support the Latino community.”

SALEF, Vaquerano said, is currently gearing up to co-sponsor a voter registration drive, and activists say that effort will be one of many over the coming months. A number of immigrant rights organizations are now pledging to follow a May 1 student and worker boycott with a voter registration campaign called “100 Percent Registration, 100 Percent Voting.”

It’s all part of an attempt to turn recent protests into a tangible political movement.

Between 800,000 and one million new Latino voters join the national electorate every four years. In November 2004, approximately 1.6 million more Latinos showed up at the polls than in the previous presidential election, but according to a 2005 study by the Pew Hispanic Center, that translated into only a 47 percent participation rate. By comparison, 60 percent of African Americans, and 67 percent of whites, turned out to vote.

Organizers like Vaquerano would like to see those numbers climb precipitously, and political observers say the odds are likely in their favor.

“My expectation for 2008 is that we should expect a higher than average growth [in voter registration among the Latino population],” says Louis DeSipio, an associate professor at the University of California at Irvine who studies Latino voting trends. “Two million is doable.”

It’s a scenario familiar to California’s politicians. A sizeable surge in Latino voters re-designed the state’s the political landscape in the wake of 1994’s Proposition 187, which sought to deny illegal immigrants access to social services before it was overturned by the courts.

Championed at the time by then-Governor Pete Wilson, a Republican, Proposition 187 might have helped win Wilson a return ticket to Sacramento by energizing an anti-immigrant backlash, but it also galvanized a new contingent of Latino voters who shut his party out of the governor’s mansion for nearly a decade and sharply eroded the GOP’s presence in state politics.

“Pete Wilson became a dirty word among Latino voters,” says Allen Hoffenblum, publisher of the non-partisan California Target Book, which handicaps state elections. At the same time, Republicans lost 11 seats in the state Assembly—seats they have largely yet to regain—and over the course of time, these new voters stayed engaged, permanently altering the state’s electoral dynamics.

“In California politics, the bottom line is, for a Republican to win a statewide office, that candidate needs to win 35 to 37 percent of the Latino vote,” Hoffenblum says. “In 2003, [Gov. Arnold] Schwarzenegger was the first to do that.”

Now, it’s 2006 and Schwarzenegger is up for re-election in a new context. On a national level, President Bush and the Republican Party have made significant inroads with the Latino community. However, with much of the most stringent border security legislation being sponsored by Republican politicians, that trend might reverse.

“In the long run, I think the Republican Party pays a price for its vocal, nativist core,” DeSipio says.

“There’s no way you could say that the Latino community speaks with one voice,” Vaquerano says. “But the vast majority of Latinos are concerned about the future of the immigrant community, and I think they will advocate for them.”

Because of this growing sense of unity among the Latino population and other related factors, some political experts believe that, despite the fact that immigration reform is essentially a federal matter, California’s state candidates could find themselves caught up in the debate.

“On a statewide level, [the issue of immigration reform this year] could be pivotal as to whether a Republican could get elected,” Hoffenblum adds.

Whether it does play a crucial role, though, remains to be seen. Currently, immigration reform has stalled in the Senate, where its future remains very much in question.

“Right now, we’re well out from November, and some things are yet to be determined,” DeSipio says. “If Congress did quickly pass reform legislation, it could conceivably nip the mobilization efforts in the bud.”

But if that does not happen, activists say, politicians should be prepared to hear from the Latino community.

“If Congress passes good legislation in the next couple of weeks, we might not need to continue these mass protests,” Vaquerano says. “But if not, I think we can sustain the movement at least until November.”

“It’s hard to predict what might happen after November,” he adds.

Return to the Frontpage