Latinos flex political muscle, but can they deliver votes?

Mass protests demanding legalisation of undocumented migrants has bolstered United States Latinos, but it is too early to know if they can muster voters in upcoming elections.

The giant pro-immigrant rallies across the United States have been led by members of the 40-million strong Hispanic community, the country’s largest ethnic minority.

According to US census data, 60% of all US Hispanics were born in the United States, and the majority of the remaining 40% are legal immigrants. But the majority of the country’s nearly 12-million undocumented migrants are of Hispanic origin.

For the first time in US history the Hispanic community joined nationwide to demand broad legalisation of undocumented migrants and to protest legislation approved in the House of Representatives that would criminalise them.

“This is a historic moment that has the potential to change the political fabric of this country,” said Erica Bernal, spokesperson for the National Association of Latino Elected Officials (NALEO) in Los Angeles.

“We like to think that the marches will continue in the next days and will culminate at the ballot box,” she said.

“I have a message for all of the politicians in Congress and ... our president.
Today we march, tomorrow we vote!” cried Jaime Contreras, president of the National Capital Immigrant Coalition, at the giant protest in Washington on Monday.

Joshua Hoyt, who heads the Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights in the Mid-western state of Illinois, said in a phone interview that the marches have created “a national movement for justice for immigrants,” which he described as “our generation’s civil rights struggle”.

US political parties “must understand that this is something that will not dissappear, it is becoming politicised and if there is no reform [that includes legalisation] there will be political repercussions,” he warned.

Those repercussions however are not likely to be felt in the November mid-term elections, but rather in the 2008 presidential elections and beyond, said Louis DeSipio, professor of Latino and Chicano studies at the University of California at Irvine.

“To have a long term political influence the leaders of this movement need to translate the anger and hope that people are expressing in the streets into a concrete set of proposals for change,” said DeSipio.

They also “need to help the permanent residents, the immigrants that are here legally that are part of the crowds, to become US citizens, and they need to translate young US citizens into voters to have an ongoing influence on American politics.”

Six percent of people casting ballots in the 2004 election were Hispanics, up from 5,5% four years earlier, according to DeSipio.

Undocumented workers joined the protests because they were “genuinely fearful of their status in the United States”, said DeSipio. - AFP

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