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Mayor urges Latinos to back Obama

Villaraigosa tells conference attendees that the Democrat will give them humane immigration reform.

July 13, 2008|Phil Willon | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, speaking Saturday to the nation's largest Latino civil rights organization, urged its members to campaign hard for Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, saying the presumptive nominee was their best hope for reforming federal immigration policies.

In his address to thousands attending the National Council of La Raza conference, Villaraigosa criticized the Bush administration for what he called its "selective enforcement" of immigration laws. He said that the federal government should focus its efforts on "criminals instead of working people," and that current enforcement practices unfairly tear families apart and punish small businesses. Instead, he said, authorities should be going after illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

Villaraigosa invoked the imagery of the Statue of Liberty, welcoming all immigrants, to counter the anti-immigrant rhetoric he said is pervasive on talk radio and cable television. He touched on the ethnic undertones of the federal barrier being constructed along the Mexican border, saying he was thankful that the U.S. never built a wall to keep out Irish immigrants or considered erecting a massive fence along the Canadian border.

For the last two weeks, Villaraigosa, who had been a prominent backer of Obama's one-time rival N.Y. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, has taken a very active and public role in selling Obama to Latino voters. A week ago, at the Obama campaign's request, he defended the Illinois senator's record after Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona ran a Spanish-language radio ad accusing Obama of only now recognizing the importance of the Latino vote. On Tuesday, Villaraigosa flew to Washington to introduce Obama at the League of Latin American Citizens convention.

Obama's embrace of Villaraigosa comes as the candidate embarks on a delicate courtship of a Latino electorate that largely spurned him in the Democratic presidential primaries.

Villaraigosa and other Latino leaders have attributed that more to Latinos' support for Clinton than any animosity toward Obama, and expect him to receive strong Latino support in November.

Both presidential candidates are scheduled to address the three-day La Raza conference -- Obama today and McCain on Monday.

Before introducing Villaraigosa to the thousands attending the conference Saturday, La Raza President Janet Murguia urged members to be respectful of both candidates, reminding them that La Raza is a nonpartisan organization.

Villaraigosa said he had no problem taking sides.

He derided McCain's recent trip to Mexico as a "campaign ploy" to appeal to Latinos and said Obama is the only candidate who has committed to adopting balanced and humane immigration reform.

He said 12 million illegal immigrants can be brought "out of the shadows and into the light, and onto the tax rolls by electing Barack Obama."

Villaraigosa was warmly received at the convention, with Murguia praising him as a national leader and tireless advocate for Latinos, saying he "has never forgotten his roots."

Andrew Ysiano, publisher of the Stockton-based Latino Times newspaper, praised Villaraigosa for his ability to grasp the needs of immigrants and the poor while governing the nation's second-largest city.

"It's a difficult thing to do . . . and he's done it well," said Ysiano, who is a Republican.

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phil.willon@latimes.com

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