Did rally unleash new political power?
Hispanics hope interest converts to ballot box clout
02:59 PM CDT on Thursday, August 17, 2006
By FRANK TREJO / The Dallas Morning News
Aftershocks continue to rumble in Dallas this summer in the wake of April's immigration "megamarch" that brought as many 500,000 people to downtown Dallas.
Momentum from the march – the largest civil rights rally in Dallas history – has given area Hispanic activists hope for increased political participation. Some say they are already seeing results:
• Two coalitions are organizing major voter registration drives, called MegaVoto, before the Nov. 7 general election.
• The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, a Latino civic education organization, recently opened a field office in Oak Cliff.
• A gay League of United Latin American Citizens chapter has formed in Dallas. LULAC officials believe it's the first of its kind in the nation.
• Hispanic teenagers have formed a political group.
Yet questions remain about the march's long-term effects on local politics. How many of the protesters are registering to vote? Will the large number of march participants cause non-Hispanics to take more than a passing interest? And will the march lead to the election of Hispanic candidates in city and county elections?
"[The march] energized the Hispanic community in a very positive way. But now comes the hard work of turning that energy and celebratory momentum into the hard work of naturalizations, voter registrations and turnout," said Cal Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University.
LOUIS DeLUCA / DMN
Marisela G. Vargas (right) gave Maria Armendariz voter registration information recently at Dallas Market Hall. Two Hispanic coalitions are organizing registration drives before the Nov. 7 election.
Officials with U.S. Immigration and Citizenship Services said the Dallas office noted an increase in the number of naturalization applications in the spring when the national immigration debate was at its height. In April, 1,482 applications were submitted. That compares with 1,269 applications received in April 2005.
In May, applications jumped to 1,647, up from 1,235 in May 2005.
In addition, the number of naturalization forms downloaded online nationally showed a dramatic rise. From October through July 2005, 684,697 were forms downloaded. For the same period this year, the number was 1,183,913.
Voter registration shift?
The effect so far on voter registrations, however, has not been as dramatic. Bruce Sherbet, Dallas County elections administrator, said about 1,500 new voters have registered since April. That's fairly normal for a year without a presidential election, he said.
Dr. Jillson said it's implausible to believe that a march will cause any group to suddenly take political control of the city, especially because at least 30 percent of the Latinos in Texas are not U.S. citizens, and many of those who are have not been politically active.
How much of an impact will the march have on local politics?
We'll see a big shift this fall
Little or no change
Change will come, but gradually
"It is important to think of this as a very long-term effort at integrating Hispanics into the political and civic life of the city," Dr. Jillson said, adding that he does not expect immediate electoral effects. "But it's absolutely necessary to begin now in order to have an effect two and four years from."
Laura Gonzalez, who teaches cultural studies at Mountain View College and is director of the Oak Cliff Center for Community Studies, said she has been astounded by what has happened to her students and their parents. Area Hispanics, she said, are poised to make a difference.
"It's an amazing transformation of my students," said Dr. Gonzalez, an anthropologist. "They are wanting to learn more about politics and public speaking, about Mexican-American history, about social movements."
Recently, some of the leaders of the spring student walkouts, which some credit for raising awareness about the immigration issue, created Young Advocates Spreading Political Awareness. Only a handful of young people have joined the group, but it already has worked at a couple of voter registration drives and plans some of its own.
"There are so many issues now that directly affect us, we wanted our voices heard," said Greisa Martinez, 18.
Another group that traces its origins to the megamarch is the new LULAC chapter, or council, created by gay and lesbian Latinos. The council, based in the Oak Lawn area of Dallas, was formed this summer with about a dozen members.
A council official said the new group would function just as any other LULAC council, working on education and civil rights issues. But it also will act as a bridge between LULAC members and gay and lesbian Hispanics. This fall, members will focus on voter registration.
Jesse Garcia of Dallas is one of the organizers. He said the idea for the council began last year when gay organizations were fighting against a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. The amendment eventually passed.
The idea for the council arose again on the day of the megamarch, Mr. Garcia said.
"Several of us went to the march, and it just hit me as we stood in the middle of all those people, what a beautiful thing it was and how we had some things in common," Mr. Garcia said. "Some of our nation's leaders are trying to paint gays and now immigrants as the root of all our country's evil."
At meetings of two voter registration groups this month, volunteers planned ways to increase the number of registered Hispanic voters by several thousand.
One meeting was in Oak Cliff at the new office of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project. The other was at the Bill J. Priest Institute in South Dallas and attracted about 45 people, including elected officials, political candidates and community representatives. Their MegaVoto project is a direct tie to the April megamarch.
Among those attending the meeting in South Dallas were Democratic state Reps. Rafael Anchia and Roberto Alonzo, as well as several Dallas County judicial candidates.
Mr. Anchia, who has been mentioned as a possible Dallas mayoral candidate next year, said that during the recent conference of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials in Dallas, the group conducted focus groups with megamarch participants.
Learning to connect
"People talked about previously feeling isolated in their views and not knowing how to connect, but that began to change with the megamarch when they saw these thousands and thousands of other people," he said.
Dallas lawyer Domingo Garcia, one of the megamarch organizers, said a voter registration drive being coordinated by the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education project is a result of the march. The group has produced results in the past.
Mr. Garcia and Southwest Voter conducted registration drives in 1988 in Cockrell Hill, just west of downtown Dallas. Before the effort, no more than eight Hispanics ever voted in city elections. In 1988, 191 Hispanics voted, and the City Council became majority Hispanic.
Mr. Garcia hopes the megamarch will produce similar results. "We had 500,000 people that marched for immigrants' rights on April 9," he said, "but that march won't mean much unless we translate those people into votes."
ON THE MOVE
March 27-29 – Thousands of students walk out of classes throughout North Texas to protest immigration proposals.
April 9 – As many as 500,000 people crowd into downtown Dallas in the city's largest civil rights protest.
June 12 – LULAC's first gay council is launched in Dallas.
Sept. 9 – A coalition of organizations plans "MegaVoto" rally at City Hall Plaza.
Sept. 16 – Several organizations will hold voter registration drives throughout city in what is being called the Day of the Latino Vote.
Nov. 7 – The first general election since April's "megamarch."
Online at: http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/news/politics/local/stories/081706dnmetmegamarchfolo.2964fe4.html