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La Liga de Las Americas

Immigration prompts heightened political attention for Latinos

Associated Press Writer

CLEVELAND (AP): The hot-button immigration issue caught the attention of Latinos and in turn has prompted extra interest in the niche voting bloc in border and non-border states alike.

``When you're a Latino, you stick together,'' said Marilyn Alejandro, 28, explaining why she and other Puerto Ricans would be watching the immigration debate this fall in midterm congressional elections and campaigns for governor in 36 states. Republicans are defending 22 governorships and Democrats 14.

Jay Pérez

Puerto Ricans, who are U.S. citizens by birth, want to make sure undocumented immigrant Latinos aren't mistreated, Alejandro said during a break from distributing AIDS-HIV information at an ethnic festival along Cleveland's Lake Erie waterfront.

``We know a lot of these Hispanics coming to this country,'' she said.

Latinos offer a sometimes puzzling demographic for politicians: They represent the fast-growing segment of the United States population, currently 14 percent, but their share of the electorate is half that. An estimated forty percent are undocumented immigrants, ineligible to vote.

Still, even small voting blocs can represent the difference between winning or losing in a sharply divided electorate, and politicians are paying attention in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and other states.

In Ohio, a pivotal state in the 2004 presidential election, Democrats are hoping scandals in the Republican state administration will help end 16 years of GOP control.

``You have a lot of undocumented whose kids are U.S. citizens. You're not just reaching out to this generation, you're reaching out to the following generation,'' said John Pérez, 50, a third-generation Mexican-American who leads the Latino outreach for Republican Kenneth Blackwell's campaign for Ohio governor.

Communication with the segment of Latinos who are citizens and registered to vote isn't difficult because they often can be reached through Spanish-language media, festivals and Latino businesses, Pérez said.

Blackwell's opponent, Democrat Ted Strickland, has been canvassing in Latino neighborhoods and festivals and taking care to provide Spanish-language versions of campaign literature, campaign spokesman Isaac Baker said.

Jay Pérez, a Columbus attorney and Democratic judicial candidate unrelated to John Pérez (nor is he Tejano sensation Jay Pérez of San Antonio), said he noticed the uptick in political interest in the Latino community as immigration and other issues caught the eye of Latinos.

Pérez, a Cuban-American born in New York, said Latinos sometimes feel unfairly treated in U.S. courts on issues such as divorce and child custody when an estranged couple includes a citizen or legal immigrant and an undocumented immigrant. In those cases some Latinos feel the courts give less weight to the position of the undocumented, Pérez said.

``Being undocumented is a very difficult life,'' he said. Undocumented Latinos hope increased political activism will improve their situation, particularly with legal access to jobs.

The issue is before Congress, and Ohio and other states are moving to tighten undocumented immigration rules.

Mass demonstrations last spring reflected a determination to fight tough immigration restrictions. ``In another sense, it sends them underground'' fearing legal reprisals over their immigration status, Pérez said.

In Pennsylvania, Democratic Gov. Ed Rendell's re-election campaign was careful to expand its usual Latino outreach programs to match Latino growth in the Allentown, Reading and Lancaster areas, spokesman Dan Fee said.

Republican opponent Lynn Swann, the former Pittsburgh Steelers star, has talked with Latino business people and has tried to build relationships with Hispanic clergy.

Swann believes ``our country must find a balance between securing our borders and maintaining a culture of inclusion,'' said Swann campaign spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson, underscoring the double-edged issue of immigration.

In Texas, where border and immigration matters have long been front-burner issues, Gov. Rick Perry won almost 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2002 and is running for re-election with a focus on border security.

A group of Latino members of Congress has announced plans to build on immigration protests by holding workshops to encourage Latinos to become citizens, making them eligible to register and vote. And in Los Angeles, a coalition of Latino, labor unions and religious groups is mounting a summer-long campaign to register 1 million Latino voters.

Except for historically pro-GOP Cuban-Americans, Latinos traditionally have supported Democrats. President Bush captured about 40 percent of the Latino vote in 2004, the most ever for a GOP presidential candidate (and an increase of 5 per cent).  

A June poll by the Pew Hispanic Center found that 16 percent of Latinos support Republicans on immigration, down from 25 percent two years ago. Support for Democrats on the issue fell from 39 percent to 35 percent.

Somewhere in the middle, you can find people like Henry Taramona, 21, a Peruvian-born New York City resident who travels with his mother each summer weekend selling T-shirts and Latino items at ethnic festivals from Boston to Orlando, Fla.

Taramona, who hedged on his citizenship status, said the coast-to-coast debate on immigration had convinced him Hispanics could exert political muscle in the United States.

``Now we have a chance to be part of the process,'' said Taramona, arranging his vendor's booth in a Cleveland parking lot with Cuban and Puerto Rican flags, Dominican Republic ball caps and El Salvador T-shirts.

His goal if he could vote? ``Help my people,'' he said. ``Give them opportunities, schools.''

Associated Press writers April Castro in Austin, Texas, and Peter Jackson in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.

Summary Box: Immigration issues get attention of Latinos
HOW MANY LATINOS IN U.S.? 14 percent of the population, about half that share of the electorate.

HOW TO REACH LATINO VOTERS? Spanish-language newspapers and broadcast outlets, ethnic festivals and Hispanic businesses.

HOW DO LATINOS VOTE? Cubans-Americans historically favor the GOP, but other Hispanic-Americans traditionally have backed Democrats.





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