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Puerto Vallarta News NetworkNews from Around the Americas | August 2006 

Migrant Rights Groups Seek 1 Million Voters
email this pageprint this pageemail usDaniel González - Arizona Republic

During some demonstrations, marches carried signs that said, "Today we march. Tomorrow we vote."
Phoenix — Immigrant rights advocates in the Valley and across the country are trying to transform the energy from last spring's huge street demonstrations into voter power this fall, hoping to mobilize a million new voters by fall.

By flooding polls, advocates aim to push the immigration debate away from the enforcement-heavy approach supported by many key lawmakers in favor of comprehensive immigration reform that offers a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and more visas to reunite families.

Their goal in Maricopa County is to register 22,000 new voters in time for the Nov. 7 election. To achieve that mark, a coalition of immigrant rights groups is launching a voter drive on Friday that will send dozens of workers into heavily concentrated Latino neighborhoods to knock on doors and stand outside markets and shopping centers to register new voters.

"We are building electoral power for our community so they can have a say, not only on the streets but at the ballot box," said Ruben Villarreal, an organizer for the Arizona Coalition for Migrant Rights, a Phoenix-based organization working with We Are America Alliance, a national group. "Once we have a strong vote, I think politicians will think twice before they pass all these anti-immigrant bills."

Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in Phoenix and cities across the country after the House passed a tough immigration bill in December that would make being in the country illegally a felony. During some demonstrations, marches carried signs that said, "Today we march. Tomorrow we vote."

But rallying Latinos to vote can be a challenge. Statistics show Hispanics who are eligible to vote cast ballots at lower rates than other groups. Bringing immigrants and new voters into the fold requires a lots of education and encouragement, organizers of the coalition said.

Seeking voters

After the marches, the Senate passed its own immigration package supported by President Bush. It took a broader approach than the House's enforcement-only version and included a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and a temporary-worker program. But despite prodding by the president, Congress hasn't reached a compromise, prompting organizers of the street marches to focus on trying to influence the outcome of the November midterm election and the 2008 presidential election.

Organizers believe the untapped power of new immigrant voters and their children could have far-reaching political impact but acknowledge they face significant challenges getting immigrants to the polls and motivating them to naturalize.

A June study by the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights estimates that by the 2008 presidential election, there will be 14.25 million potential voters among legal immigrants currently eligible to naturalize and U.S.-born children of immigrants ages 16 to 24.

Of those, 303,600 live in Arizona, which would have been more than enough to swing the 2004 presidential election in Arizona, according to the coalition. Bush won Arizona by 210,770 votes. Nationally, in 2004, 47 percent of Hispanics 18 and older cast ballots in the presidential election, compared with 67 percent for Anglos and 60 percent for Blacks, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Latino immigrants historically have lower voter participation rates than the general population, however, and lower naturalization rates than other immigrant groups.

"The typical voter is someone who owns a house, is highly educated, is financially stable and over 40. And in our community, you aren't going to find that," Villarreal said.

Still, Villarreal and others will concentrate on voter drives in Republican J.D. Hayworth's District 5, in parts of Mesa, Tempe and Phoenix, and Republican Jim Kolbe's District 8 in southern Arizona. Hayworth, a staunch immigration-control advocate, faces Democrat Harry Mitchell this fall, and a slew of candidates is battling for the seat Kolbe is giving up.

Casting ballots

There are signs besides the street marches that immigrants are eager to get more involved in the political process, in large part out of fear as the debate heats up.

As of May, citizenship applications in Phoenix increased by almost 40 percent, to 6,026 from 4,329, compared with the previous 12 months, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. Nationally, citizenship applications are up 19 percent for the same periods, to 466,929 up from 393,628, the agency said.

Volunteers don't tell voters which candidate or political party to support, but they believe immigrant voters and Latinos are more likely to support candidates who favor comprehensive immigration reform, Villarreal said. Political candidates also are less likely to support hard-line measures when immigrants vote, advocates say.

"Elected officials are going to see there is power in our community, that (immigrants) are part of their constituency," said Lydia Hernandez, an organizer with the Arizona Coalition for Migrant Rights.

On a recent Saturday morning, Juan Serrato and his wife, Claudia, lined up along with more than 100 other legal permanent residents in a cafeteria for help filling out applications at a citizenship workshop in Phoenix. The workshop at Bret R. Tarver Elementary School was the fifth citizenship workshop organized this summer by the Arizona Coalition for Migrant Rights.

During the five workshops, more than 625 legal permanent residents applied for citizenship, organizer Teresa Castro said. Only U.S. citizens can cast ballots, and in Arizona, Proposition 200 requires everyone registering to vote to prove U.S. citizenship and to show ID at polls.

The coalition plans two more workshops Saturday, one in Phoenix, the other in Tucson. Juan Serrato, a native of Mexico, said he has been content remaining a legal permanent resident of the U.S. for the past 18 years. But he was prompted to apply for citizenship by those in Washington, D.C., calling for tightening the border and clamping down on immigration.

"The laws are getting so strict against us that I'm trying to protect myself and my family," said Serrato, a 44-year-old truck driver wearing a "USA" ball cap. "I'm afraid one day I could get deported."

Serrato said he was motivated to apply for citizenship by another reason: He has many family members and friends who would benefit if Congress passed immigration reform that includes a path to citizenship for the undocumented.

"I want the right to vote so that I can help my people," he said.

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