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A Primer On Hispanic Vote


February 27, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Newsday. All rights reserved.

A "road map" to courting the Latino vote released by the nation's largest Hispanic civil rights organization offers no wide-open highways but stops at several key issues for a disparate and complex group.

The 59-page State of Hispanic America 2004, released Tuesday by the Washington, D.C.-based National Council of La Raza, says candidates can't expect to win votes from the country's 35 million Hispanics by focusing on immigration, or floating Spanish phrases from the stump.

Raul Yzaguirre, executive director of La Raza, said at a news conference Tuesday that only a comprehensive approach on issues from education and health, to employment and home ownership would inspire the many Latinos in big electoral states such as New York to support a candidate. Other issues, such as immigration, counterterrorism, criminal justice and workers' rights were on the agenda but not as unifying to Latinos, he said.

"There's something that happens in this country that doesn't happen in our countries of origin," Yzaguirre said, pointing out that voter participation in nations like Mexico and Puerto Rico commonly reaches above 80 percent. "What is it? My experience tells me that a lot of Latinos feel that participating in elections doesn't make a difference in their lives. What we're trying to do is say that these are the issues that will galvanize Latinos."

'Immigration' tactic faulted

The report, released annually since 1991, cites sources such as the U.S. Census, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development and dozens of private and public surveys. Among it's most significant findings was that Hispanics will not embrace a candidate for introducing immigration policies, such as President George W. Bush's proposal for a comprehensive guest worker program.

"If you think you can talk about immigration and check off Latinos because you've covered their concerns, you've made a great mistake," said Sonia Pérez, deputy vice president of research at La Raza.

Pérez said Hispanics view immigration as a "threshold issue," or one in which they hold strong opinions and can mobilize around, such as California's Proposition 187. The measure denying education, health benefits and housing to undocumented immigrants was passed in 1994 but was dulled through legal challenges that lasted until 1999.

Hispanics, many opposing the proposition, and a surprising number supporting it, held large rallies before the ballot and voted in larger numbers. But a proposal that merely introduces immigration reform and is not followed up by real legislation will do little to attract Latino support, Pérez said.

Education factor

Some Hispanics from Long Island and New York City agree with La Raza's assessment of the Latino voter, though they emphasized that Latinos are not asking elected officials for special treatment.

Rebeca Ramirez, chief administrator for the Manhattan-based Association of Hispanic Arts, said she sees education as the most important issue when evaluating a candidate.

Ramirez, who is Mexican-American, said she supports candidates who know how issues such as education and immigration intersect, and how paying attention to them can enrich the lives of all Americans.

"I'm working with immigrants all the time who come here and have amazing art skills that aren't being utilized," she said. Because they are either navigating the immigration system or unable to find sufficient English instruction, "they're working at McDonald's instead of contributing all that they have."

Pascual Blanco, executive director of the nonprofit La Fuerza Unida de Glen Cove, said the report could have touched on the importance of programs to support Hispanic-owned small businesses. With a successful business, Hispanics are not only able to vote but to engage in the more influential action of contributing to political campaigns, he said.

"When we [Hispanics] talk about politics and politicians we always imply that there is someone who controls and has power over us," Blanco said Tuesday. "But when you become self-sufficient, you sit at the same table as those who have the resources and the power."

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