Posted on November 3, 2006

Hispanic Group: We Feel Slighted

Shelia M. Poole, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, November 2, 2006

Some advocates for Cobb County’s fast-growing Latino population are upset that county authorities did not consult them about a plan to let the sheriff speed up the deportation of certain illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.

Members of the Cobb Hispanic/Latino Initiative said they learned only from news reports that the county commissioners planned to vote on the deportation plan. The committee was created in 2004 by Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners, and Georgia Power Region Manager David Connell, who was then incoming chairman of the Cobb County Chamber of Commerce.

“It’s like we don’t count,” said Patricia Henao, director of Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Atlanta’s community outreach center in Cobb. “You guys ignored us. That’s how I feel.”

Zayra Alicia Fosse, state director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, also took issue with the commissioners during an initiative meeting Monday.

“To see us completely ignored … this is mind-boggling,” she said.

The county commissioners endorsed a plan Oct. 24 that would let the sheriff’s department work more closely with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The plan would help sheriff’s deputies identify illegal immigrants in the county jail who have committed crimes. Immigration authorities would deport an immigrant after a federal court authorizes the removal and after the immigrant completes his or her local sentence.

The immigration agency still must approve Cobb participation.

Olens defended the commissioners but said it would have been prudent to notify members of the Cobb Hispanic/Latino Initiative. He said the sheriff’s office asked for the item to added to the agenda days before the meeting. “We saw this as a jail management issue and not a law enforcement issue,” he said.

Jerry Gonzalez, a member of the Cobb Latino initiative and executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the controversy “has set us back tremendously.”


After Gov. Sonny Perdue signed the bill into law last year, six of 17 members of the statewide Latino Commission for a New Georgia resigned because, they said, the governor did not seek their opinion.

Hispanics are the nation’s fastest-growing community, but no one would guess that from the media campaigns of Florida’s candidates for governor, according to some observers and campaign analysts.

Just days before the election, some say neither Republican Charlie Crist nor Democrat Jim Davis has aggressively courted Hispanics with a tailor-made pitch. That could come at a price, analysts say.

“I don’t know that their messages are to Hispanics,” said George Mursuli, executive director of Democracia USA. The nonpartisan group registered 105,000 new Hispanic voters this year in Arizona, Florida, New Jersey and Pennsylvania.

The 56,003 newly registered voters in Florida, where Hispanics make up roughly 13 percent of the vote, include a growing number of immigrants from Central and South America who recently have become U.S. citizens, have no strong party affiliation and whose votes are up for grabs.

Edith Oliva, of Argentina, a naturalized citizen since 2003, voted for President Bush in 2004. But her vote for governor can go either way next week.

“I want to vote. That’s why I became a citizen. But I haven’t heard much from either one of these candidates about their positions on the Latino community. You’d think it’d be an important part of their platforms, now that Anglos are becoming the minority in South Florida,” said Oliva, 49, a translator who lives in Lauderhill. “I’m undecided at the moment.”

Isabel Martinez, 50, a native of Colombia and member of the Democratic Caucus of Palm Beach County, is voting for Davis, though the Lake Worth resident says both candidates need to make stronger appeals to the Latino community.

“They aren’t campaigning enough in Spanish, and they will both lose Hispanic votes,” said Martinez, who co-owns an agency that prepares legal documents for clients.

Though immigration is largely a federal responsibility, Oliva and Martinez say the issue is high on their priority list as voters. Crist and Davis favor a broad, Senate-backed bill that would help undocumented immigrants gain citizenship.

The centerpiece of Crist’s Spanish-language campaign is an ad called El Sueño Americano, or The American Dream, in which U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Florida, invokes his Cuban immigrant success story and endorses Crist.

The Davis campaign aired its first Spanish-language television ad Tuesday in Central Florida, a battleground for Hispanic votes. The 30-second spot, Familia, or Family, presents Davis as a family man concerned with school class sizes and health care costs.

Both campaigns stand in sharp contrast to the 2002 governor race, when the Florida Republican Party and the Jeb Bush campaign aired more than 900 Spanish-language spots worth $1.8 million, according to the Hispanic Voter Project at Johns Hopkins University. Democrat Bill McBride and his party aired about 250 spots, or $150,000 in Spanish-language ads.

Neither Crist nor Davis has Bush’s fluency in Spanish or ties to Latin America, which is underscored by Crist’s reliance on Martinez, said Adam Segal, director of the nonpartisan Hispanic Voter Project.

“It’s obvious by looking at this ad that Charlie Crist needs a gigantic crutch to help prop him up in the Hispanic community,” Segal said. “I can’t remember a Jeb Bush ad that featured a Hispanic official more prominently than himself.”

Nevertheless, Republicans, more than Democrats, have effectively wooed undecided Hispanic voters, Mursuli and others say.

“In the Jeb Bush ads of ‘02, we saw a lot of relationship-building,” Mursuli said. “He never talked about jobs or health care. He said, `I’m one of you.’”

President Bush used similar tactics in the 2004 presidential race, winning 40 percent of the Hispanic vote, according to Joe Garcia, executive vice-president of the New Democrat Network. For too long, Democrats have relied on an outdated message to the Hispanics of the 60s or 70s, Garcia said. Those were years when the party easily won the votes of Mexican-Americans, the nation’s largest Hispanic group, and the rhetoric of labor leader Cesar Chavez mobilized voters.

Today, 4.3 million Hispanic voters in the United States are foreign-born, and many are new to the American electoral process, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

“These are blank slates. They have no more knowledge of Cesar Chavez than they do of Ronald Reagan. They’re highly impressionable,” Garcia said. “To brand yourself as a winner, you have to offer them the American Dream.”