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Latino Activists Put Faith in Ballots

As immigration rights leaders assess gains and losses since rallies last spring, they turn their focus to the recruitment of 1 million new voters.

September 10, 2006|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Has the immigrant rights movement fizzled?

At a national Latino conference that drew hundreds to downtown Los Angeles last week, movement leaders emphatically said no.

Although Congress has stalled action on broad immigration reform and Labor Day marches failed to mobilize wide support, activists said they were only now beginning to roll out the next stage of their battle: a massive effort to produce 1 million new Latino voters and U.S. citizens.

"Now is not march time," Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in Los Angeles, said Saturday. "We're mobilizing voters. That's the big deal."

But immigration control advocates say the marches last spring doomed activists' efforts by alienating most Americans and strengthening support for stronger border control and opposition to legalization.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 22, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 58 words Type of Material: Correction
Latino conference: An article in the Sept. 10 California section about a national Latino conference in downtown Los Angeles had a picture showing a man from the Pilipino Workers Center holding Philippine flags at a rally. The caption should have stated that the Sept. 9 rally, which followed the conference, also included immigration rights activists other than Latinos.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday September 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Armando Navarro: An article Sept. 10 in the California section about immigration issues, and three others since April, incorrectly identified Armando Navarro as chairman of UC Riverside's ethnic studies department. He is a professor in that department.

"The mass sea of illegal aliens bearing foreign flags and hostile placards really produced a pronounced backlash, from which they've never recovered," said John Keeley, spokesman for the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies.

The movement's fate is in question just months after hundreds of thousands of immigrants and their supporters startled the nation by pouring into the streets to protest a House bill that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and those who support them. Buoyed by their success, they helped push the U.S. Senate to pass a landmark bill increasing visas and offering legalization to many of the nation's estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.

Since then, some activists acknowledge, their ranks have become demoralized as congressional action on the issue stalled over the summer and recent marches have fallen flat.

In Los Angeles, for instance, police estimated that only about 1,500 people turned out for a Labor Day weekend rally that organizers had predicted would draw as many as 50,000. And Cecilia Munoz, a vice president of the National Council of La Raza, said some immigrants were reluctant to risk their jobs to march because the likelihood of legalization and other reform does not appear imminent.

"A lot of people feel a loss," immigrant activist Oscar Garcon said Saturday at the National Latino Congreso, which was billed as the most comprehensive gathering of Latino leaders in nearly 30 years. "They say, 'We demonstrated, we came out by the millions, but what did we change?' "

But he and others said a movement cannot fairly be measured by the size of its marches or its early setbacks, and some experts agree.

Louis DeSipio, a UC Irvine associate professor of political science and Chicano/Latino studies, said it was premature to dismiss prospects for broad immigration reform.

He said such aims could take years to achieve. The 1986 amnesty for illegal immigrants, for instance, took a decade to pass and did so abruptly, just as most members of Congress thought the provision dead.

DeSipio said movements cannot be built from marches alone.

"It's good they've moved away from the marches," he said. "Marches can get people's attention, but it doesn't necessarily get a higher percentage of the community involved in civic participation. That's what things like get-out-the-vote and voter registration drives do."

DeSipio said the ferment over immigration could in time lead to a surge in Latino voters similar to the one after the 1994 passage of Proposition 187. The measure would have denied health benefits to undocumented immigrants had it not been overturned in the courts.

The number of legal residents who became U.S. citizens increased from 434,000 in 1994 to more than 1 million in 1996; and Latino registered voters in California increased from 1.6 million in 1996 to 1.9 million in 2000, according to the National Assn. of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund in Los Angeles.

Activists argue that some preliminary data offer evidence of another surge. According to U.S. immigration statistics, the number of citizenship applications increased by 41.5% in May over last year, a far larger increase than in previous periods.

"This is one of many issues, and it's going to take time, but it will come," said Cristina Basurto, 32, a member of Women of Earth, a social justice organization, who attended a small rally after the conference Saturday near downtown. "I think people still have it in their hearts and still want to fight for what they believe in."

The number of new Latino voters grew by 35,000 in Los Angeles County from March to August, helping to boost their share of the electorate from 20% to 24% over last year, according to an analysis of Los Angeles County registrar-recorder data by the Latino officials' organization.

Marcelo Gaete, the organization's senior program director, said his staff used a surname dictionary to determine how many of the county's new voters were Latino.

Keeley, however, said the political landscape proves his point: A get-tough stand on immigration is a winning political message.

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