Getting Latinos To the Polls Made Tougher by Immigration Delay

Protesters from United We Dream stage a sit-in at the state office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Sept. 9, 2014. Dreamers, undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children, are upset with President Barack Obama's decision to not act on immigration reform until after Novermber's midterm elections. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)J. Scott Applewhite / AP

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Those working to turn out the Latino vote for the midterms have an added challenge over coming weeks: Get Latinos registered and to the polls amid anger over President Barack Obama’s delay of executive action on immigration until after the Nov. 4 elections, which comes after bitter disappointment over congressional Republicans' inaction on the issue.

Non-profit groups that operate voter registration and get-out-the-vote-drives among Latinos are some of the very ones sounding off the loudest over Obama’s delay, saying he has broken another promise to Latinos. After Republicans tabled legislation on the issue, the President had said he would take executive action by the summer.

Some of the loudest critics of Obama, the DREAMers, are equating Obama’s delay with Republicans’ inaction and much of the recent protests have focused on the President.

Disappointment over inaction on immigration legislation is not a welcome situation for groups wrestling with how to improve Latino voter participation.

It's not a welcome situation for groups wrestling with how to improve Latino voter participation, which already has a poor showing at the polls in midterm elections. In 2010, the last midterm elections, 31.2 percent of Latinos turned out to vote. On top of that, midterms lack the top-of-the-ticket motivation found in presidential election years.

“Motivating our community has never been easy,” and the president’s delay doesn’t help, said Ben Monterroso, executive director of Mi Familia Vota, which is working to turn out the vote in six states including Colorado, where Democrats are trying to hold on to a Senate seat.

While many impacted by inaction on immigration can’t vote, the immigration experience is not distant to the majority of voters who have turned out at the polls.

In the last midterm election, in 2010, 59 percent of the 6.6 million Hispanics who voted were naturalized U.S. citizens or were U.S.-born children of at least one immigrant, according to an analysis of Census data by Mark Hugo Lopez, Hispanic research director for Pew Research Center.

That compares to 41 percent who were U.S. born children of U.S. born parents, according to the analysis requested by NBC Latino.

Moreover, polls consistently show the majority of Hispanic voters, regardless of political affiliation or income, support immigration reform.

Obama’s allies have urged Latinos to look at the bigger picture, consider whether they would be better off with a Republican-controlled House and Senate, not just on immigration, but on issues of education, fair pay and health care.

Republicans and conservatives, on the other hand, have seized on Obama's delay to appeal to Latino voters.

Daniel Garza, executive director of the LIBRE Initiative, which he said has a conservative/libertarian agenda, projected a suppressed Latino turnout “because of the disillusion with Obama, not because of Republican inaction.” Republicans never promised to act, he said. Obama said he would and then retracted the promise “because of Democrats who came to him and begged him not to do it. He made a clear choice here.”

Jennifer Sevilla Korn, deputy political director for the Republican National Committee, said Obama’s delay on immigration has opened a door for Republicans to engage Latino voters who now feel treated like a “political football.”

While Latino voters can make a difference in just a few Senate races that are competitive, their numbers are key in several competitive House races.

However, many Republicans will also have to explain House Leader John Boehner’s switch this year from trotting out immigration principles and a step-by-step approach to only allowing votes on immigration bills that essentially would strip young immigrants here illegally, DREAMers, of deportation deferrals and work permits authorized for them by Obama in a 2012 executive action.

The Latino groups that are non-partisan have a tax status that limits them to only talk about issues and can’t endorse candidates or political parties. They can tell voters which candidates have done better on their preferred issue, but congressional inaction on immigration and the president’s decision to delay executive action on the issue complicates the comparisons.

“This contributes to why Latinos don’t vote, because they don’t trust the system,” said Joaquin Guerra, Texas Organizing Project political director.

Without an immigration victory to tout, that leaves the mobilizers left to do a lot of explaining on why it still matters for Latinos to turn out at the polls. But Guerra said that is what his group does anyway, because it is reaching out to what are known as “low propensity” voters, those who have voted in only one of the last three elections.

While Latino voters can make a difference in just a few Senate races that are competitive, their numbers are key in several competitive House races.

Voto Latino, which focuses on young voters, Latino Victory Project and several of the non-profit groups have banded together for a Hispanic Heritage month campaign to register Latino voters. The campaign, Hispanic Heritage Action is to combine social media and on the ground efforts, and in particular targets young Latinos of voting age.

“Our job is to say that the moment we stay home is when our issues are off the table,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO of Voto Latino.

“Our job is to say that the moment we stay home is when our issues are off the table,” said Maria Teresa Kumar, founding president and CEO of Voto Latino.

The Latinos that the mobilizers are trying to get to the polls also are more likely to have an immigrant experience, although the share is smaller.

Of the 14.6 million Hispanics who did not vote in 2010, 54 percent were naturalized U.S. citizens or U.S. born children of at least one immigrant, Lopez’s analysis showed. Forty-four percent were U.S. born children of U.S. born parents, Lopez’ analysis shows.

Time is on the side of mobilizers, said Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

“We are now eight weeks out from the election,” Saenz said. “In election terms that is a lifetime.”

A reality of voter turnout is that in the midterms, political parties and political action committees have more resources for voter turnout efforts, but tend to target likely voters, those who have shown up in previous elections. And those groups can push partisan messages.

“While this is a major setback now, it should be a shot in the arm to folks who realize we need to build our own political power,” said Cristobal Alex, president of the Latino Victory Project, a 501(c)(4), which can have some involvement in politics but most mainly promote a social welfare policy, such as increasing Latino representation in Congress.

“I really believe that moments like this are sparks that can start a fire in terms of building a movement and building political power and we’ve got to capitalize on it,” he said. “We are not going to sit back and dwell and complain. We’ve got to use this as a spark to get things moving.”