Today, nearly 350 Latino leaders from 30 states are gathering in Washington as part of the 2010 National Council of La Raza (NCLR) National Latino Advocacy Days. They will visit their congressional representatives to call for action on national priorities of critical importance to the Latino community. In addition to health care, at the top of that list are jobs and immigration reform, two issues that directly affect the stability of Latino communities and will undoubtedly influence turnout and enthusiasm in the 2010 elections.
Latino civic participation has grown in past years, and it is important that this growth does not plateau or fall off. Although still lagging behind in participation compared to other demographics -- given the youthfulness of the population, among other factors -- Latinos are the fastest-growing segment of the electorate. They added more than two million voters to their ranks between 2004 and 2008 -- a growth of 30%. Every month, 70,000 U.S.-born Latinos turn 18 and eligible immigrants, though facing a process increasingly priced out of their means, continue to save to become citizens. In 2008, Latinos played a vital role in choosing the presidential nominee in both parties, were a determining factor in who won House and Senate races in states from North Carolina to New Mexico, and ultimately were the decisive factor in the outcome of the presidential election in many battleground states.
Both parties need to engage in and deliver on the issues that matter to this electorate. In 2004, President Bush garnered about 40% of the Latino vote (a key factor in his victory), and in 2008 President Obama won with about 66% of that vote.
In 2006, Latinos powered nationwide peaceful demonstrations where millions participated to prevent passage of one of the harshest anti-immigrant proposals in the past 70 years. In 2007, energized by that momentum, eligible Latino immigrants became citizens in record numbers. And those new citizens, together with Latinos turning 18 or newly registering, helped drive the massive increase in the size of the Latino electorate.
The promise of change that energized voting and participation in 2008 is bringing these hundreds of Latino community leaders to Washington today. They intend to push Congress to act on the needs of the nation: and remind the White House about its promises to Hispanic voters on the immigration reform issue:
They also want to remind the White House about its promises to Hispanic voters on the immigration refrom issue:
Jobs and the economy have always been at the top of the Latino agenda--and that priority has only intensified in the context of the economic recession. Next to Blacks, Latinos are the community hardest hit by unemployment, which long ago passed the double-digit mark that set off alarms nationwide. But, as with other communities, Latinos have not seen the kind of congressional action that will truly help their community recuperate. While in Washington, the community leaders participating in NCLR National Latino Advocacy Days will be advocating for specific actions that provide immediate relief to people out of work and lay the foundation for a broad-based economic recovery that benefits all American workers.
These community leaders will also focus on pushing for solutions on another threshold, galvanizing issue for Latino voters: immigration reform. Although the majority of Latinos are U.S.-born, 69% of Latino voters report that they have a friend, neighbor, family member, or coworker who is an undocumented immigrant, and 82% consider the issue important to them and their family (with 59% considering it "very important"). From a strictly policy perspective, reform stands to benefit the country as a whole when you look at tax revenues, labor market equity, and protecting workers' rights. Yet the impact is even more intense for Latinos, whose communities have been ravaged by the chaos in the current system.
But it goes further than that. The high-decibel debate on immigration reform is generating anti-immigrant and anti-Latino sentiment, and we have seen a spike in hate crimes against this community. When the dehumanizing label "illegals" is shouted in the public square, in the media, and by elected officials and candidates, a lot of Latinos correctly hear it as an attack on their entire community. The issue is a lens through which Latinos assess how politicians and parties regard their community. Action--and inaction--on immigration speaks volumes to Latino voters. That is why, even if it does not rise to the top of the issue agenda in every poll, immigration packs a powerful punch among Latinos when it comes to civic participation.
With an election coming in November, whether and how Latinos vote should be critically important to both parties. From NCLR's perspective, the 2010 elections have extra importance because they follow the extraordinary mobilization and turnout of 2008. But individual Latinos and the community as a whole are wondering whether their participation really matters. They have not seen the promised improvements in the economy, a change in the tone of how their community is regarded, or concrete results when it comes to immigration, health care reform, and other issues.
Though participation is always down for all groups in a midterm election, the question is by how much. For Latinos, if it is down because they feel dispirited, that is bad news for the community and for the health of democracy in America. Less participation brings less accountability, and that is something Congress needs more of, not less.
That's why NCLR and our network of nearly 300 Affiliate organizations throughout the country are working to keep the Latino community engaged in the public policy process, in politics, and in civil society. The Latino leaders coming to Washington to meet with their members of Congress work with community-based service and advocacy organizations in their states to help people stay in their homes, train for new jobs, stay healthy, and excel in school. They are also helping eligible immigrants become citizens, citizens become voters, and their communities become active participants in our democracy. They are held accountable every day and want the same for Congress and the administration.
Washington can give them a hand. There is a great deal at stake in the individual policies that Washington enacts or fails to enact before Election Day. In terms of the lives of individual Latino families, just as important for the long run is whether Washington is accountable and responsive to the voters that helped put them in office. Latino voters remain hopeful, but we do not have unlimited patience.