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Latino Influence, Voter Rolls Grow In Battleground Virginia

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Maria Rodriguez has been part of the Virginia New Majority canvassing effort since September.
Kate Sheehy
Maria Rodriguez has been part of the Virginia New Majority canvassing effort since September.

The polling firm Latino Decisions says 50,000 Latino voters become eligible to vote every month, and in the battleground state of Virginia, Latinos make up 8 percent of the total population with 250,000 eligible voters. The most recent statistics have President Obama and Gov. Romney in a virtual tie.

Among the customers munching on sandwiches and sipping soup at Panera Bread in Dumfries, Va. are volunteers for Virginia New Majority, or VNM.

"Today, there's about a 50 percent chance of rain so take a poncho, please take an umbrella, hopefully it won't be blown away but we'll see. I really appreciate your hard work," says VNM field director Eric Koscyk to his volunteers.

VNM is a non-partisan organization focusing on voter education, and Koscyk is rallying his troops. "I get the sense of a high turnout election," he says. "I think there will be high turnout on both sides."

Maria Rodriguez is one of the youngest canvassers helping with the effort. She's not even old enough to vote.

"I think it's important to get other people involved, and I wish I could vote, but just getting others to do that is enough for me," says Rodriguez. "I'm making a difference this year."

Rodriguez, 17, is a first generation American citizen, born in the U.S. to Salvadoran parents who left during that country's civil war in the 1980s.

Rodriguez has been speaking with people of various backgrounds, but is most excited about the eagerness of Latino voters.

"For some of them, it's their first time voting," she says. "It's amazing to see 60 to 70-year-old Latinos getting involved, so that makes me happy."

One of the first houses she stops at belongs to Samuel Cruz of El Salvador. He tells her he doesn't have time to vote this year. A little more probing reveals it is not his schedule keeping him from the polls.

"Neither candidate has focused on what they will actually do," says Cruz. "Neither of them is convincing."

A couple of blocks away, Walter and Lorena Velasquez of Honduras are getting ready for dinner.

Velasquez says his whole family will vote for President Obama. But he does say he has his doubts about Obama.

"I think right now it's true we are a little disappointed because he hasn't proved anything," says Velasquez. "But we'll give him another chance to see what he'll do."

Velasquez says that he did regain some trust in Obama after the president announced his policy for Deferred Action earlier this year. This act protects some undocumented Latinos brought here as children from deportation. And a recent poll by Latino Decisions found that Latinos have expressed more confidence in President Obama because of this program.

He also admits he doesn't like politics much and is tired of the campaign, but his wife says she has always loved being involved with politics.

The couple has two sons, and Velasquez's wife, Lorena, says what she considers most in her vote is their future.

"You know education is really expensive here, and parents work very hard to have the ability to help their kids a little, but sometimes they can't," says Velasquez. "And the second is immigration reform. We thank God that we have our citizenship, but we have family, friends that don't and they work hard and I believe they deserve it also."

Recent surveys suggest a candidate's stance on immigration issues affects Latino support even among those who say immigration is not their top issue.

Even though 17-year-old Maria Rodriguez can't vote, she knows what is important to her.

"I'm a really big advocate of women's rights," she says. "Specifically the right to choose, even if I might not agree. It's their right, and they have the right to choose."

Rodriguez says many young people who are part of immigrant families covet the right to vote.

"They're in a sense voting for their parents because their parents can't vote, and that's what your parents want you to do, they want you to vote, to do something they can't do. That's the whole reason they came to this country — to give their kids a better opportunity. And in a sense in voting, you're fulfilling their dream basically."

Rodriguez is hoping by the next presidential election, her father will be able to cast his own vote. She's helping him study for his citizenship exam.


[Music: "Alternate Ending Montage" by John Swihart from Napoleon Dynamite Soundtrack]

Photos: Latino Voters

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