Activist encouraged by Latino voter turnout
- Tyche Hendricks, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, November 18, 2006
The immigration debate has unified Latinos politically, and last week's election results shows they were mobilized, the head of the nation's oldest Latino civil rights group said Friday.
"I see a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of people wanting to get involved," said Rosa Rosales, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens.
Rosales stopped in Berkeley as part of a nationwide tour she began after the Nov. 7 election. She credits the polarizing debate over illegal immigration with motivating more Latinos to go to the polls, and said the results were a repudiation of many Republicans' enforcement-only approach to immigration reform.
Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., Rep. J.D. Hayworth, R-Ariz., and Republican congressional candidate Randy Graf of Arizona "all made an issue of immigrants, a very punitive type of thing, and they all lost," Rosales said in an interview before she addressed several dozen students and faculty at UC Berkeley's Center for Latino Policy Research. "It sent a strong message to them that immigrant-bashing is not the way to go."
A pre-election poll by the National Council of La Raza and the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials found that immigration was energizing Latinos to vote, though they ranked education, the economy and the war in Iraq as their biggest concerns.
A national exit poll by the William C. Velasquez Institute in Los Angeles found that almost 6 million Latinos cast ballots, fewer than in the 2004 presidential election but 1.1 million more than in the last midterm election in 2002.
After Republicans lost ground among Latino voters, President Bush recommended Florida Sen. Mel Martinez to be chairman of the Republican National Committee. Rosales applauded the move but added, "I think both parties need to move a lot more Latinos into power positions. We're not to be taken for granted."
Like most national Latino organizations, Rosales' group, known by its acronym LULAC, favors comprehensive immigration reform, including a path to citizenship for the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
An equally urgent priority for the group, however, is education, said Rosales, a flamboyant 62-year-old labor organizer from San Antonio.
"We are in a state of crisis," she told the UC Berkeley audience. "Graduation rates for Latinos are dismal. It's so important as college students for you to go and reach out to high school students."
Rosales said her own path to college, which didn't begin until she was a 30-year-old mother of three, transformed her from a timid housewife into an outspoken activist.
The 77-year-old LULAC has a history of fighting discrimination and racial segregation. Its legal challenges included the 1946 Mendez vs. Westminster decision, in which the federal courts banned school segregation in California, paving the way for the Brown vs. Board of Education case in the U.S. Supreme Court eight years later.
But the group's membership has been declining in recent years. Young Latinos these days are likely to think, "Why would I join LULAC? That's my grandparents' organization," said Maria Echaveste, a lecturer at UC Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law who was deputy chief of staff to President Bill Clinton.
"It's the only real membership organization in the Latino community and it's got a great history," Echaveste said. "There's a lot of hope that with Rosa's leadership it can re-energize itself."
Rosales said she aims to triple the group's membership of 150,000, and credited a recent appearance on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight" for a burst of publicity. Dobbs is known for his antagonism toward illegal immigrants.
"Lou Dobbs did me a favor," she said. "They're calling me every day and asking to join."
E-mail Tyche Hendricks at email@example.com.
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