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Not enough Hispanic voters?

Erin Texeira

NEW YORK – After huge immigration protests earlier this year, advocates vowed to capitalize on the energy and register 1 million new foreign-born voters, mostly Hispanics.But rhetoric has run headlong into reality: Organizers say that, as of last week, they had signed up fewer than 150,000 people.Advocates’ experiences show that cultivating new voters is tough, plodding work, and that developing Latino power will rely not on street protests but on the group becoming more politically engaged as it gets older.”People were waving signs – ‘Today we march, tomorrow we vote’ – but that may not be something that’s literally tomorrow,” said Lionel Sosa, a Republican political strategist who is chief executive of Mexicans & Americans Thinking Together, a Web-based nonprofit. “It will be slow, but eventually everyone running for political office will understand that this is a vote to be reckoned with.”This spring, immigrants demonstrated nationwide, sparked by a House bill that would have made it a felony to be in the country illegally. The Senate’s immigration bill left that provision out and the two chambers failed to reach a compromise.Immigrants’ advocates seized on momentum from the protests and organized what they called Democracy Summer. They pledged to register 1 million new foreign-born voters by next week’s election – and another 2 million before the presidential contest in 2008.But Germonique Jones, spokeswoman for the Center for Community Change, an umbrella organization of some of the nation’s biggest immigrant groups, said the total is roughly 146,000. The Center for Community Change arrived at the figure by totaling estimates from the various groups with which it has been collaborating.Such estimates are difficult to confirm because secretaries of state do not tally new registrations based on ethnicity or where voters were born, said Catherine Ennis, a spokeswoman for Pennsylvania’s department of state.But by all accounts, simply finding 1 million eligible new voters in just a few months would have been tough.”The 1 million – we were looking at the potential of immigrant voter power,” Jones said. “Looking back, we realize … the immigrant community is complicated – not monolithic.”First off, more than one in three of the nation’s 42 million-plus Hispanics are age 17 or younger, 2005 Census data show – too young to vote. And some portion of that population, no one is sure exactly how many, includes illegal immigrants.Plus, organizers said, many newcomers lack basic civics information. Some barely understand the nation’s political system – its structure, rules and history – how and where to vote, and how to sort through political rhetoric to choose candidates. Some don’t know that they can ask for election information in foreign languages, that voting is free or that the United States has elaborate voter protection laws.Jones said the push now is to build “a culture of participation.” Her group is testing a sort of civics class for immigrants in five states with plans to send it out to more states early next year. “It’s a democracy school,” she said. “People are hungry for it.”Lindsay Daniels coordinated voting efforts for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, in 20 cities this summer. “One of our lessons learned was, this work in engaging people in voter registration and becoming involved and civically engaged needs to happen year-round,” she said. She said registering 1 million by 2008 was “more realistic.”Many immigrants who understand the system have eagerly registered to vote, organizers said.In Arizona, Mi Familia Vota (My Family Votes) focused its energies on Latinos already registered, and the response has been strong, said Joel Foster, a spokesman for the group. “I’ve been doing this work for 10 years in Arizona,” he said. “Instead of us having to track people down, many of them are calling us.”Recently, at a citizenship ceremony in Brooklyn, dozens of the hundreds of new Americans signed up to vote on the spot. “I’m very, very interested to vote – I love this country,” said Irma Ines Castano, 57, a factory worker from El Salvador, in halting English. “This country need my vote, too.”Gladys Prieto, 58, a home health care attendant from Ecuador who lives in Queens, got help from her husband, Jaime, filling out her voter registration form as the naturalization ceremony ended. “I don’t like (President) Bush,” she said in Spanish. “I’m ready to vote.”Another hurdle to immigrants voting is that few candidates have developed a rapport with them, said Jorge Mursuli, president of Miami-based Democracia U.S.A., an advocacy group that says it registered most of the new immigrant voters – more than 100,000 in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.”People are interested when they start to see more Hispanic candidates – that gets new voters engaged,” Mursuli said.It’s tough to say how many Latino candidates there are in local and state contests, but anecdotal evidence indicates there are more this year than in 2004, said Marcelo Gaete, program director at the National Association for Latino Elected Officials.”In many communities, Latinos are new to the electorate, so what it took to win in 2004 is not what it will take to win in 2006,” Gaete said. “We are poised to really help shape the winds of Congress.”


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