Turning anger on immigration law into votes


Rafael Robles has been eligible to vote ever since he became a U.S. citizen 23 years ago, but nothing has spurred him to register until two young activists visited his house here last week.

The canvassers were part of an ambitious push to increase turnout of Latino voters in the wake of a controversial state law that requires police to determine the immigration status of people they legally stop and suspect are in the country illegally.

Robles, 60, recounted how his 39-year-old daughter, a Phoenix native, has been stopped multiple times by officers who ask her in broken Spanish where she was born.

“It’s only because she is Hispanic,” Robles said as he filled out a form to become a voter. He noted how, in decades past, signs were posted at establishments across the Southwest saying no dogs or Mexicans were allowed.

“It can all return,” he said.

Activists hope that SB 1070, which Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law in April and is scheduled to take effect July 29, will generate enough angry new Latino voters like Robles to reshape this state’s hard-line approach to immigration.

As they fan out across sun-bleached barrios this summer, the activists cite the example of California.

More than 1 million California Latinos became citizens after the passage of anti-illegal immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, putting the state solidly in the hands of Democrats and pushing immigration crackdowns to the margins.

Many analysts and political scientists predict a similar outcome — eventually — in Arizona. Latinos, 30% of the population, are the fastest-growing and youngest demographic group in the state.

“It’s the same energy I saw with 187,” said Ben Monterroso, a Service Employees International Union official who spearheaded voter registration in California in 1994 and now oversees the Arizona operation. “People are saying enough is enough.”

But Arizona may be much more difficult to change, partly because Latinos are a smaller piece of the electorate in the state than in California, said Harry Pachon of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC.

And Stan Barnes, a lobbyist and former Republican legislator in the Arizona Senate, said the state’s crackdown on illegal immigrants would bring out other new voters — ones who support sealing the border.

“The average guy in Arizona believes that Mexico has become a narco state and that is coming to Arizona,” Barnes said. “The fact that the Arizona government has rallied to confront that has energized a whole new electorate.”

It’s obvious which way the political wind is blowing in the state that has become the favorite illegal entry point from Mexico. Few candidates for statewide office here, even Democrats who opposed SB 1070, are openly sympathetic to illegal immigrants.

New hard-line measures pop up seemingly every day. Last week, a Republican candidate for the state Corporation Commission, which regulates utilities, proposed shutting off power to homes of illegal immigrants.

Polls show that SB 1070 is popular in Arizona, except among Latinos; in the most lopsided survey, as much as 81% opposed it. The get-out-the-vote campaign, launched in June by a coalition of labor, community and religious groups, is trying to channel that outrage in November.

The canvassers target Latinos who are already registered but rarely vote. Latino voter turnout hovers about 35%, and about 60% of all Arizona voters went to the polls in the last off-year election. Sixteen percent of registered voters in the state are Latino.

Francisco Heredia, the state director of Mi Familia Vota, the nonprofit spearheading the campaign, said the decision to focus on turnout was forced partly by Arizona law requiring people to prove their citizenship status before registering to vote. That makes it cumbersome for canvassers to sign up people who don’t have documents handy or are wary about sharing them with strangers.

At 1:45 p.m. on Wednesday, about two dozen canvassers filled a conference room in SEIU headquarters in Phoenix, chatting with a smaller group in Tucson via video. The walls were lined with papers listing how many voters other groups in the campaign had reached.

The campaign is trying to vastly increase the number of Latinos who sign up to receive mail-in ballots, which will make it easier for them to vote. The field coordinator, Martin Manteca, totaled the numbers and announced that they were at 2,300.

In pairs, the canvassers, all younger than 30, filed out and were driven to precincts around town. Yvette Saenz, 17, and Israel Araujo, 23, walked a blue-collar stretch of south Phoenix known as Sunland.

It was an appropriate name on this day, as the mercury climbed to 110 degrees. Before approaching doors, they rattled fences to make sure they weren’t surprised by guard dogs.

“Anyone eligible to vote here?” Araujo asked a white-haired man who answered the door at one of the first houses.

“No, I’m from Mexico. I don’t got no papers,” the man said in English.

“Don’t tell Arpaio,” he quipped, referring to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, notorious in the community for arresting suspected illegal immigrants.

For every successful contact, there were dozens of unanswered knocks, or voices behind opaque screen doors telling the canvassers to leave.

After Araujo registered Rafael Robles to vote, there was a distinct spring in the canvasser’s step.

“That keeps me going,” said Araujo, who recently graduated from community college and plans to keep canvassing until he enrolls at Arizona State University to pursue an electrical engineering degree.

By the time Araujo and Saenz were done almost six hours later, they had persuaded 20 voters to sign up for mail-in ballots and had registered nine new voters.

Times staff writers Sandy Poindexter and Doug Smith in Los Angeles contributed to this report.