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Family separations at the border help fuel new Latino voter drive

Voto Latino is launching a new three-year, multi-million dollar effort to register Hispanic voters.
image: Latino Voters Go To The Polls Early In Florida
Hispanic voters go to the polls for early voting at the Miami-Dade Government Center in Miami, Florida on October 21, 2004.Gaston De Cardenas / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump’s policy that has resulted in the separation of parents and children along the southern border may have accomplished something Latino activist groups haven’t before: Prompting a long-term voter registration drive uniting progressive and traditional Democratic groups.

On Thursday, a new coalition led by the nonprofit advocacy group Voto Latino will launch a three-year, multi-million dollar effort to register Hispanics, who’ve historically been among the least likely group of voters to cast a ballot, NBC News has learned.

Despite decades of effort by liberal-leaning organizations, Hispanic voters consistently turn out in numbers far lower than other demographic groups relative to their population. Every year, Democrats promise a surge in Latino turnout and spend millions on the cause, only to come up short. That was true even in 2016, after Trump launched his presidential campaign by calling many undocumented Mexicans drug dealers and rapists.

According to exit polling, Trump performed about the same among Hispanic voters as Republican Mitt Romney did in 2012, capturing 28 percent of the vote.

With the national narrative shifting from immigration policy to family separations — including hundreds of children who still haven’t been reunited with their parents — progressives believe this time is different.

“Multiple organizations are finally talking to each other,” said Wilmer Valderrama, a Hollywood actor and Voto Latino board member. “A lot of this campaign is going to be about educating our young people and sharpening their tools so they understand how to represent their family,” he said.

“What was clear was that unifying our voices under one banner proved powerful,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino president and an MSNBC contributor.

The coalition was created after Latino interest groups, in a span of six days in June, galvanized over 40 organizations and a host of Hollywood names, including Lena Dunham, Chelsea Handler and Mira Sorvino, to protest a child detention tent city in Tornillo, Texas.

Sponsors of the effort include Emerge America, a Democratic women’s network, the Service Employees International Union and Rock the Vote. Spanish-language television networks Telemundo and Univision are participating, while celebrities including Valderrama, Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera are celebrity sponsors.

The coalition also hopes to convince donors to shift from the party’s traditional focus on swing states in the Midwest to states with the biggest growth in population, like Texas and Arizona. In 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton dramatically improved on Barack Obama’s 2008 and 2012 margins in those states, a shift that was overshadowed by Trump’s strength in former midwest battlefields.

Kumar acknowledged many donors remain skeptical about investing in deep red Texas.

Skeptics say the Hispanic community is diverse — with Puerto Ricans and Cubans concentrated in Florida and Mexicans in California — and not everyone has responded the same way to Trump’s border policy.

“They are treating the Hispanic community as a monolithic group, and we’re not,” said Alfonso Aguilar, president of the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles.

“They keep saying the same thing. ‘They’re really angry and they’re going to turn out’” for Democrats. “But it’s not happening,” Aguilar said.

While eligible Hispanics tend to be registered to vote at lower rates than other demographic groups, once registered, they participate in greater numbers. According to Pew Research, there are 27 million eligible Latinos, with only 16 million are registered. Yet of those, 79% cast a ballot in the last election.

The majority of these voters are young, fluent in English and live off their mobile devices. The campaign will include “guerrilla marketing” as well as a new telephone app allowing individuals to register to vote by scanning their drivers’ licenses into their phones.

“We are basically connecting the Latino network in a way we have not seen,” said Kumar. “Everybody is coming together because there is a level of persecution we’ve never seen,” she said.