Think Latinos are ambivalent about immigration?

At the height of his hubris, Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- an anti-immigrant organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center -- decided that he is better qualified than Latino civil rights leaders to speak to Latino views. What’s next, David Duke writing about African American views on affirmative action?

In his Feb. 2 Times Op-Ed article, “Priorities of immigration advocates are out of step,” Mehlman latches on to Pew Hispanic Center polling data that show Latino voters rank education, healthcare and the economy over immigration to make the case that resolving the immigration question during the Obama administration would run counter to Latino interests. Nice try.

No one should be surprised to find the economy, education and healthcare at the top of Latino voters’ priorities. The economy and education, through the years, have always been at the top of that list. What Mehlman and others continue to misrepresent is the galvanizing effect the issue of immigration has on Latino participation. It’s not complicated: Latinos understand that when the immigration debate turns negative, it affects the whole community regardless of immigration status. Coinciding with the rise in vitriol in the immigration debate, FBI statistics show a nearly 40% increase in hate crimes committed against Latinos between 2003 and 2008. The Southern Poverty Law Center attributes the 48% rise in the number of hate groups in the U.S. between 2000 and 2007 almost completely to anti-immigrant rhetoric.

To deny that immigration was a watershed issue for Latinos in this last election is to deny the obvious. Remember the 2006 rallies and the slogan, “Today we march, tomorrow we vote”?

At least 10 million Latinos turned out to vote on Nov. 4, a stunning increase from the approximately 7 million who voted in the 2004 general election. And where immigration was concerned, Latinos supported the candidate that was more clearly in favor of reform. They did this during the primaries (Latinos were a deciding factor in Sen. John McCain’s primary victory over other Republicans, delivering Florida at a crucial juncture of the campaign) and in the general election (They helped President Obama in key states such as Florida, Nevada, New Mexico, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina and Virginia).

In the absence of a thorough discussion of immigration during the general election at the presidential level, what informed the sensitivities of Latino voters on this issue was the overall tone of Republican candidates during the primaries and in races at the local level. McCain suffered the consequences of being a member of a party that wholeheartedly embraced anti-immigrant rhetoric and the scapegoating of Latinos to score political points. There are, of course, some notable exceptions, including McCain. The party’s strategy backfired.

It turns out the strategy also did not work with the general electorate. Candidates with less restrictive immigration positions trumped more restrictive candidates by nearly a 2-to-1 margin. Less restrictive candidates won most of the open congressional seats and most of the seats in which party alignment changed. Many of those candidates who adopted the most strident nativist positions were defeated, including Rep. Virgil Goode (Virginia), Rep. Marilyn Musgrave (Colorado) and Mayor Lou Barletta of Hazelton, Pa.

The truth is that the vast majority of Americans want to see real solutions on immigration and are tired of the rhetoric. They do want secure borders; they also want the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants to get legalized, learn English and pay taxes, and they want to remove incentives for unscrupulous employers to abuse the current situation to the detriment of all workers. Contrary to the beliefs of Mehlman, this can only help the economy by leveling an uneven playing field.

The next time Mehlman decides to chime in, he should stick to discussing what he knows best: how his group has stood in the way of our nation solving its immigration problem.

Clarissa Martinez is director of immigration and national campaigns for the National Council of La Raza.