With the presidential campaign well underway, Latino community and labor leaders are gathering in Los Angeles to develop strategies for mobilizing voters, strengthening their political influence and pushing for the legalization of undocumented immigrants.
Hundreds of Latinos from throughout the nation are expected to participate in the 2nd Annual National Latino Congreso, which began Friday at the Sheraton Los Angeles Downtown and continues through Tuesday.
Record numbers of green-card holders became U.S. citizens this year, following the massive immigrant rights marches and citizenship drives.
But activists said they now want to make sure those new citizens register to vote and cast ballots.
They are disappointed by the failure of Congress to agree on comprehensive immigration reform and are concerned about the ongoing raids and arrests of undocumented immigrants in their homes and workplaces.
“Right now it’s a very critical time for the Latino community,” said Angela Sanbrano of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, which helped plan the event.
“We must equate political presence with political power.”
Antonio Gonzalez, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, said that this has been a disappointing year in terms of immigration reform and that it’s time to “play hardball politics.”
He said the 12 million Latinos estimated to become registered voters by 2008 can influence electoral politics, especially in battleground states.
Already, the Latino vote is leveraging itself, he said, citing the pledges by Democratic presidential candidates to enact immigration reform.
The movement has been criticized for being divided, but speakers said Friday that they were determined to create a unified plan to take to Washington.
In addition to promoting their agenda, such as a bill that would give legal status to certain undocumented children brought to the U.S., Latinos said they also are battling state and local anti-immigrant initiatives around the nation.
And in some cities, like Hazelton, Penn., they are succeeding. A federal judge this summer told the city that it couldn’t punish employers who hired illegal immigrants or landlords who rented to them.
Immigrants are increasingly moving across the nation, including to the Midwest and South, creating tensions and conflicts with longtime residents.
The conference gives community leaders from throughout the country a chance to compare notes and reflect on what is working and what isn’t, said Pablo Alvarado, head of the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
“With or without immigration reform, we have to coexist and we have to make sure that coexistence is peaceful and harmonious,” Alvarado said.
Among the speakers Friday was California Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), who criticized Immigration and Customs Enforcement for recent arrests that led to the deportation of parents and the division of families.
“We’ve seen the devastating impact these deportations are having on these children,” Nunez said.
He echoed the theme of Latino political power, saying that Latinos could be the “determining factor” in the 2008 election.
Along with immigration, participants planned to discuss education, healthcare, the environment and foreign policy.
Nelda Perez, who lives in Texas and works with an organization that focuses on employment and education for Latinos, said coming together with similar groups helps her better address the problems in her community.
“In our own states, we feel like a voice crying out in the wilderness,” she said.
Organizers of the Latino Congreso include the Hispanic Federation, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.