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 politcally 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 CEO 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 immigrants 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 U.S. 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.”
Spanish-language radio hosts and advocates for immigrants who mobilized massive marches in Chicago earlier this year have now turned their attention to next week’s midterm election.
The Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights began a get-out-the-vote campaign Wednesday, encouraging citizens who marched for immigrant rights to follow up by voting Tuesday.
The coalition has registered more than 16,000 voters statewide this year, targeting neighborhoods with high immigrant populations, Avila said. The group plans to have 1,800 volunteers going door-to-door and working phone banks on Election Day to make sure voters know when and where to vote.
Although the state-funded coalition is nonpartisan, some Latino leaders said the Democratic Party had done more to support immigration reform.
“If Republicans are against immigration reform, it is pretty clear who to vote for,” said Rafael Pulido, known to morning Univision Radio listeners as El Pistolero.
Latinos are more likely to get news from radio than other media, which is why radio hosts like Pulido have been so instrumental in mobilizing the Spanish-speaking community, Avila said.
“Voting is a necessity to fight for our rights,” Pulido said. “Will this be the year immigrants make a difference? I hope so.”