WASHINGTON – UnidosUS, the Latino advocacy group that changed its name in part to be more relevant to millennials, is honing its efforts to register young Latinos during this year's midterm elections.
Janet Murguia, UnidosUS president, announced the group's launch of its "Power of 18" campaign on Wednesday in a luncheon held in spite of snowy conditions that shut down government offices and schools in the nation's capital.
Flanked by several young Latino leaders, Murguía pitched the campaign as "how we're gonna grow the power of our vote."
"While this has been a historically challenging time for our community, we are far from powerless. A new generation of voters are reminding us that we hold the power within us to make the change we want and it starts by registering to vote," she said.
There is hope for expansion of voters and turnout by Latinos because it is a young population. An estimated 880,000 U.S. citizen children who are Latino turn 18 every year. That number is expected to rocket to more than 1 million a year by 2024.
But significantly increasing the influence of Latinos is an uphill and costly climb. Just 40.3 percent of millennial Latinos say they voted in the 2016 elections, a lower share than African American, 49.4, white, 52.8 and Asian millennials, 43.4, according to Pew Research Center. Millennials were 44 percent of all Latinos eligible to vote in 2016.
Yaaresi Leon, 18, of Houston and a student at Houston Gateway Academy, said at the news conference announcing the campaign, that many young people may think voting and civic engagement "is all just a hoax."
She urged young people to realize that the country is their own as much as anyone else's and said that young people "need to show ownership" by using the power they obtain when they turn 18, which is voting.
"A person not involved is a person who will never see change in their community, yet be first to complain," said León.
The UnidosUS Latino voter campaign comes after the former NCLR changed its named to UnidosUS. Murguía told NBC News last July that the name change was intended to show unity in the Latino community and also to make the organization relevant to millennials.
The organization has long been involved in registering Latino voters of all ages. But in recent years donors have reduced funding for their efforts.
UnidosUS is not the first to make a foray into capturing young Latino voters. Actress Rosario Dawson co-founded Voto Latino in 2004. Initially an MTV media campaign, Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO, joined Dawson and Voto Latino. They began by using early social media platforms to encourage young Latinos to vote.
The effort was funded on Kumar's credit card for its first three years. At the time, about 400,000 Latinos a year were turning 18. The group has developed other methods since then. But since the start, the largely millennial-run organization has registered 500,000 young Latinos to vote.
Millennials made up some 44 percent of the Latino electorate in 2016, according to Pew Research Center.
As more and more Latinos have reached 18, they have sparked a new activism in the Latino community, much of it centered around the push for permanent legal status for immigrants who arrived or stayed in the country without legal permission, but also spilling into campaigns on other issues.
"We have witnessed over the last several months the courage, leadership and tenacity of our young people who have galvanized in an effort to challenge our national leaders on a number of critical issues from DACA to gun control to laws around gender equality and so much more," Murguía said.
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