tampabay.com

Activists push Hispanics to vote

Group leaders warn that people who don't exercise their rights run the risk of losing them. The goal is to register 1-million new voters before the 2008 election.

By JOSE CARDENAS
Published July 1, 2006


During a May 1 demonstration for immigrant rights, Americo Villareal carried a large picture of his son, U.S. Army Sgt. Saul Ybarra, to show that children of immigrants help protect democracy here.

Now, says Villareal, it's vital that Hispanic immigrants who have become citizens participate in that democracy.

"You have to register to vote," Villareal, 52, a Mexican immigrant who became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2002, tells customers at his two restaurants in Polk County.

"If you don't vote or let other people vote for you, I think in the long run they are going to take rights from us," he said.

This weekend, activists nationwide hope to turn the energy of immigrants like Villareal into lasting political participation.

Today, the network of grass-roots groups that organized the May 1 marches around the country is launching what has been dubbed "Democracy Summer."

Through registration drives, teach-ins and seminars, groups from Los Angeles to Orlando and Miami aim to register 1-million new voters and convince some of the nation's 8-million legal permanent residents to become citizens by the 2008 presidential election.

There is relatively little organizing under way around Tampa Bay, but other Florida groups will reach out to the:

* 720,000 legal immigrants eligible to obtain citizenship.* 147,000 U.S.-born young people, ages 18 to 24, who are children of immigrants but are not voters.* 77,000 U.S.-born children of immigrants who will turn 18 by 2008.

The nation's 42-million Hispanics make up the largest minority group in the U.S.

But many are younger than 18 and others lack citizenship, so only 39 percent of Hispanics were eligible to vote after the 2004 elections, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

By comparison, 76 percent of whites and 65 percent of blacks were eligible to vote.

Activists are counting on one thing to motivate legal immigrants: The bill passed in the House in December would make it a felony to be in the country illegally.

The effect could be like 1994, when California voters passed Proposition 187, activists say.

Later overturned as unconstitutional, it would have denied most public services to undocumented immigrants.

It also led to widespread voter registration among Hispanics.

"There's this energy in the community that understands that it is not enough to rally," said Marcelo Gaete, of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials.

The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services office already has seen more immigrants interested in becoming citizens. In May his office received 140,000 applications for citizenship, compared with 72,000 for May 2005, spokesman Chris Bentley said.

Maria Rodriguez, of the Florida Immigrant Coalition, said a main focus will be teaching English to immigrants so they can pursue citizenship.

Another priority will be building broad support.

Florida's two dominant Hispanic groups are not affected by immigration rules. Puerto Ricans born in Puerto Rico are citizens by birth. Cubans enjoy a special legalization privilege if they reach American soil.

But activists say they are making progress.

"Every day is better," said Enrique Montes, of the Latin American Immigrants Federation in Miami. "It's a very well-organized community. We are working with (Cuban-Americans) ... to give us their support."