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Groups join in Latino voter drive

Nine organizations unite in nonpartisan effort to bolster civic action, especially among younger voters.

July 19, 2008|Teresa Watanabe | Times Staff Writer

Buoyed by a surge of political interest among immigrants and youth, nine national Latino organizations Friday announced a joint effort to register as many as 2 million new voters as presidential candidates from both parties vie for their community's increasingly influential support.

The $5-million nonpartisan voter registration effort, announced at a national Latino forum in downtown Los Angeles, comes amid an unprecedented campaign by community organizations and Spanish-language media to boost Latino civic participation -- and two new reports showing signs of success.

The U.S. government last week reported that the number of Mexican immigrants who became citizens last year swelled by 50%, with hundreds of thousands more in line to process their naturalization applications.

Community leaders Friday expressed even more excitement about a new study by the Texas-based William C. Velasquez Institute, a nonpartisan public policy and research organization that found more than 1 million Latinos had registered to vote during this primary season, including 500,000 in California and Texas.

The biggest buzz centered around who most of the new voters are: not new U.S. citizens as expected, but American-born youth under age 30. That demographic is notoriously difficult to reach but makes up three-fourths of the Latino community's 8 million eligible but unregistered voters, according to Antonio Gonzalez of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project in Los Angeles.

"I was shocked by the increase in young new voters," Gonzalez said. "They're typically the hardest to reach."

Gonzalez said he had expected that newly naturalized, older Latinos would make up the bulk of new voters. But government delays in processing more than 1 million pending naturalization applications had jeopardized the chances of significantly boosting those numbers. Although U.S. officials told immigrant rights groups earlier this year that they aimed to process three-fourths of the pending applications by September, the New York-based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has filed a class-action lawsuit against the federal government to expedite the process.

The new voter mobilization campaign would largely target younger voters through 125 organizing committees in 12 states, including California, Gonzalez said.

In separate efforts, New York-based Voto Latino has specifically targeted the youth vote with public service announcements by Cameron Diaz and other popular Latino actors, videos on MySpace.com, community blogs and advertisements on popular radio stations in the Bay Area. Since January, the effort has registered 18,000 young voters, according to Maria Teresa Petersen of Voto Latino.

Several young people who attended the Latino forum in Los Angeles said they were moved to register to vote for the first time this primary season because of excitement over Democratic candidate Barack Obama and concern over the nation's plummeting economy, immigration system and continuing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Omar Cruz, a 21-year-old public relations student at the University of Texas in El Paso, said he "never took interest" in politics before. But this primary season, he said, the election was the talk of the campus and several student groups organized voter registration drives. As a young Latino living near a military base and the U.S.-Mexico border in El Paso, he said ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and reforming the immigration system were urgent issues.

Cruz said he plans to vote for Obama -- as does Rafael Mora, a 24-year-old UC Santa Cruz student studying history and economics.

Both said Obama's multicultural background and modest economic upbringing appealed to them.

"The majority of Hispanics come from a humble background and may feel that Obama can relate to them more," Mora said.

Not all new young voters are pro-Obama, however. Valerie Simone, a 23-year-old El Paso College student, said she plans to vote for Republican candidate John McCain because she believes he would be more fiscally responsible and would crack down on welfare abuse.

"I feel Democrats vote more for handouts," she said.

The young Latinos were among an estimated 1,500 people from 300 organizations expected to attend the third annual National Latino Congreso, a three-day public policy forum that began Friday. Participants were expected to discuss ways to take action on more than 150 resolutions approved in previous gatherings, including appeals to end the war, investigate Latino student underachievement, better cooperate with Latin America and adopt immigration reform that would legalize the nation's 12 million undocumented immigrants.

Presidential politics and immigration reform dominated discussion during Friday's opening media briefing.

Community leaders hailed both McCain and Obama for appearing at three Latino conventions in recent weeks. But leaders said both candidates still had work to do to obtain their vote.

John Trasvina, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said he wanted to see the next president end immigration raids, put a moratorium on the use of local police in immigration enforcement, and appoint a Homeland Security chief who would suspend immigration raids during the 2010 Census to ensure a more accurate count, among other things.

Nativo Lopez, national president of the Mexican American Political Assn., added other issues, including rising income inequality and the disproportionate number of Latinos in the criminal justice system.

Although polls show that Obama is leading McCain by a margin of 2 to 1 among Latinos, Gonzalez said, neither candidate has locked up the vote.

"In addressing the substantive issues of concern to Latinos," Gonzalez said, "both candidates are lacking."

--

teresa.watanabe@latimes.com

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