Arizona Immigration Activists Mobilize Latino Vote

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For years, Maricopa County, Ariz., has been ground zero in the debate over immigration.

On one hand, the massive county, which includes the state capital of Phoenix, has a growing Latino population. On the other, it's home to publicity savvy Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has made his name by strictly enforcing, some say overstepping, immigration laws.

Last month, the Supreme Court struck down much of the state's immigration enforcement law known as SB 1070, even while leaving intact its most controversial provision. That allows Arizona police to question the immigration status of suspects they've stopped or arrested.

In the aftermath of the high court decision, Latino immigration activists are as busy as ever trying to transform the fear and frustration of Latino families into actual voting power.

'We Are America'

On a recent evening, more than 100 people filled the cafeteria of Carl Hayden Community High School in Phoenix for a forum on SB 1070. It was organized by the group Somos America — "We Are America" — and aimed at undocumented people.

Audience members dashed off questions on white note cards for a panel that included immigration attorneys and a representative from the Mexican Consulate.

Among the questions: "If I'm detained in my car and I don't have a driver's license, what can I show?"

Another asked: "If I go walking, can a policeman stop me and ask me for my immigration status?"

The question-and-answer period went on for more than an hour; no one left the room.

At the end of the evening, Somos America President Daniel Rodriguez took to the podium.

"Raise your hand," he said in Spanish, "if you know someone who's not here but needs this information. Raise your hand if you know someone who's been deported. Raise your hand if you know someone who has the power to vote."

Across the room, hands shot up at each statement.

"Every question, almost everyone raised their hands, and that just goes to show you that there's a lot of people that know the pain and the hurt of being deported or having to know someone that was deported," Rodriguez recounted.

Rodriguez told the crowd of mostly ineligible voters that they need to use that pain and turn it into power by tapping friends and family who can vote.

'Practically An American Without Papers'

The irony is, Rodriguez is himself undocumented. His mother brought him from Mexico to the U.S. illegally when he was a child. He calls himself a "Dreamer." He's college educated but has fallen short of the law degree he aspired to, thwarted by a lack of financial aid.

On June 15, President Obama ordered a stop to the deportations of younger illegal immigrants who came to the U.S. as children and have no criminal history. Obama's plan to defer action on deporting young illegal immigrants applies to Rodriguez, but he said he still worries about his future.

Chatting at the coffee shop he uses as his makeshift office, Rodriguez acknowledges that mobilizing in his community is not an easy task.

It's not like it was four years ago, Rodriguez says, when people seemed fired up about national politics.

"Before, I remember in 2008 when President Obama was running for office, [because of the] historical importance of his presidency he mobilized a lot of people of color, like Latinos, to come out there and vote. And I was out there getting people registered to vote, because we believed that change was going to happen, and that it was going to happen immediately," recalls Rodriguez.

"But now, four years after he was elected, and we saw that immigration reform did not pass. We saw record numbers of deportations," says Rodriguez. "Not a lot of Latinos are very enthusiastic this time to come out and vote. I think one of the ways that we're trying to combat that is by saying, you have two reasons to come out there and vote. One is to stop SB 1070 and laws like it. And two, the president already took a stance. The president already gave his deferred action to people that were qualified traditionally under the DREAM Act. And if we want to move forward, we need to elect a president that supports that."

Rodriguez, 26, says Obama's decision to defer action on deporting some young illegal immigrants was clearly a political move.

"The difference between what we're seeing now and what would have happened three or four years ago, is that now it's a political move by the president that he needs to make in order to win re-election, because of the growing power of Latino voters," says Rodriguez. "It's definitely progress."

Rodriguez moved to the U.S. with his family when he was 7. He says if he could, he would vote.

"To see people that have that privilege and not take it, and because they don't take it we have people elected that create laws that hurt me, that hurt my family, that hurt our communities. It can get frustrating," he says.

"I am practically an American without papers, and because of that I don't have the power to vote," says Rodriguez. "So, the best thing I can do now is organize those that can, and make them vote for me."

A 'Sleeping' Voting Bloc

True to his word, Rodriguez heads out in 111-degree heat to canvass in the Phoenix neighborhood where he grew up. His partner is fellow activist Maxima Guerrero of the group Promise Arizona.

As they walk through the neighborhood, the shades are drawn on every house. The few people who answer open their doors only partly, or peer at them through grated screens. Their goal is to register 40,000 voters in Maricopa County. But on this day, they're not having much luck.

Most of the people they encounter are ineligible to vote. One is a resident but not a citizen. Others may be here illegally. One is a felon, still on probation.

Finally, Jacqueline Duarte comes to the door. She's 19 and already registered to vote. She's not really following the national election, at least not yet. But ask her about immigration, and it's a different story.

"People are leaving. They can't fix papers. I know people that have been here for like 20 years, and they still can't fix anything," says Duarte. "So, I don't know, we just need change or something."

Those are concerns that Arizona State University political science professor Rodolfo Espino says are reverberating through Latino communities everywhere.

Like all voters, Latinos care about the economy and unemployment, but he says: "In the aftermath of the signing of SB 1070, what was one of the top concerns for Latino voters? Immigration."

And, Espino says, immigration remains a top concern after the Supreme Court decision on the law.

Espino says that while Latino voters have long been considered the "sleeping giant of American politics," their power as a voting bloc was minimal in past elections because they weren't concentrated in key battleground states. This year, with Latino populations on the rise in key swing states like Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and North Carolina, Espino says, it's a different story.

"Now [Latinos] can go to politicians at the national level and say, 'Hey, if you want to win national office, you have to listen to what we're asking for,' " says Espino. "And now, I think we're starting to see that."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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