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Panel: Want to Win the Latino Vote? Address Immigration

Image: Immigration protest at White House

Members of Latino and immigration assistance organization 'We Are CASA' protest with immigrants and their supporters on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington, DC, USA, 30 December 2015. SHAWN THEW / EPA

WASHINGTON, DC -- A group of Latino political experts and community activists said Hispanic voters care about many issues, but one issue in particular will likely drive many of them to the polls this year.

"We're on the verge of possibly the largest Latino voter turnout in American history, and not just because of our community growing, but also because of the emotion that's involved in the election this year, probably more than ever," said Matt Barreto, UCLA professor and co-founder of the research and polling firm Latino Decisions, speaking at a Latino voter forum at the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies and the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington, D.C.

The emotion Barreto is referring to is largely related to Republican candidate Donald Trump. When he announced his candidacy he said Mexicans were rapists and drug dealers, and has repeatedly said he would build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border and would stop "all illegal immigration." That's the impetus driving Latinos to the polls, said Barreto, who is doing polling for the Clinton campaign along with political scientist Gary Segura.

Rubio, Trump Face Off on Immigration 1:17

"Immigration is a mobilizing issue. When people think that their personal welfare is at stake, they are more likely to participate," Barreto said. "In the Latino community, there are few issues that can evoke emotion more than immigration."

Latinos of course care about other issues, but immigration is different, said Barreto. "On the economy, for instance, all candidates say the same thing; that they want to make the economy better, but that's not the case with immigration. It's an issue where the contrast is very clear. Voters can easily map their preferences on the candidates."

Polls by Latino Decisions and Pew Hispanic have found most U.S. Latinos support a pathway to immigration reform. Pew Hispanic found that more than 36 percent of registered Hispanic voters would not vote for a candidate who disagrees with them on immigration, including a quarter of Latino Republicans and four-in-ten of Hispanic Democrats.

It really is not anything new and it is not limited to Trump, said University of Maryland political science professor David Karol. It is rather a long-festering issue that the Republican party is just now grappling with.

"Donald Trump didn't come out of nowhere. Trump has inherited a lot of support within the Republican Party that is a result of actions taken by Republican leaders over many decades," Karol said. "There's (GOP 1964 presidential candidate) Barry Goldwater coming out against civil rights legislation, there's Proposition 187 (in California), and the rise of the Tea Party after Obama was elected," he said.

Arizona Sheriff Arpaio Endorses Trump 0:57

"President George W. Bush tried to reorient the party with his 'compassionate conservatism.' He pushed hard for immigration reform but the base of the party rejected it," added Karol. "The Republicans who do want to target Latino voters are very constrained by the base."

Latino community activists say that impetus to get involved and vote this year is also fueling efforts to reach young Hispanic voters.

RELATED: For 2016, Almost Half of the Latino Electorate Are Millennials

The Latino community in general is young, with a median age of 27, and various groups are undertaking an aggressive effort to reach those young people and make sure they register and vote. Many of those young voters are in California and Texas, where half of the country's Latinos reside.

RELATED: Millennials Put Latino Get-Out-the-Vote Efforts to the Test

"We were just in San Antonio with (actress) América Ferrera talking to young Latinos and we launched an initiative where artists will be joining us on the road to register voters," said María Urbina, vice president of politics and national Campaigns at Voto Latino, a non-profit group that focuses on Latino youth civic and community engagement. "We see a lot of enthusiasm. They are eager and motivated and we're going to keep pushing," Urbina told NBC Latino.

Voto Latino's event several days ago, Turn Up for Super Tuesday, drew a large crowd.

According to the Pew Research Center, millennials are 44 percent of Latino eligible voters this year and are the largest source of growth for the Hispanic electorate overall, and voter registration efforts are key. Pew identifies millennials as 18-35-year-olds.

"While Hispanics register to vote at somewhat lower rates than other groups, once they register, the voter turnout rates are much closer (to other groups), the gap is smaller," said Mark Hugo López, director of Hispanic research at Pew.

Hundreds Rally in Wisconsin in Protest of Immigration Bills 1:16

"Between 2000 and 2012, Latino voter participation grew 80 percent," said Clarissa Martínez, with the Office of Research, Advocacy, and Legislation at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR). "The formula to unlock Latino voter support is not rocket science. Issues matter and candidates matter, particularly those who build a relationship with the community and who have skin in the game on issues Latinos care about."

All of this attention does not bode well in this election cycle for the GOP, said Republican pollster Glen Bolger of the polling firm Public Opinion Strategies.

RELATED: Democrats at NCLR Focus on Trump As If He's GOP Nominee

"When you look at what some of the Republican candidates have been saying, those who are attacking Latinos are bad at math," Bolger said. "They're not understanding that Latinos are becoming a bigger part of the electorate and the percent of Latinos voting Republican this year is likely to go down. The idea of attacking Latinos runs counter to winning."

Karol from the University of Maryland believes the Republican Party would have to hit rock bottom before anything changes.

"They're not going to be able to break away from this until they are able to tell their people that what they are doing is not working, and for that to be overwhelmingly clear they have to lose some more, like lose the Senate, and lose to (likely Democratic nominee) Hillary Clinton. That would be a good start to reform."

"What they're doing right now is shooting themselves in the foot," Bolger said.

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