Hispanics look to elections

By Jeff Shear

Nationwide demonstrations last May by Hispanics for immigrant rights have yielded few results, but activists say the marches have energized them and opened the way to organizing local communities for this November’s elections.

Ivan Kohar Parra, lead organizer of the North Carolina Latino Coalition, which represents some 60 community-based activist organizations, sees a period of transition ahead, from the fanfare of spring to the hard work of fall electioneering.

“Now it’s time to harness the energy of immigrants into the power of the electoral process,” he says.

North Carolina is home to 500,000 legal Hispanic immigrants in North Carolina, and Parra hopes to see them become citizens and voters.

He is counting on as many 120,000 new Hispanic voters in North Carolina by Election Day in 2008, in time to vote in a new president.

The key, he says, will be raising money.

“Financially, we have the basics,” he says, “but we don’t have all we need.”

And the May marches have not resulted in increased financial support for Hispanic organizations, Latino leaders says.

Chris Bishop, an organizer in Charlotte, says philanthropies can do more.

“We need to see funding for organizations that are thinking about voters and registration,” says Bishop, who works for the Industrial Areas Foundation, one of the oldest and largest organizations of social activists in the U.S. “Democracy is only going to succeed if people are active.”

With “big money” likely to continue to drive political outcomes across the U.S., he says, foundations can put a new spin on philanthropy.

“It’s got to be more than just getting out the votes,” he says. “It’s got to be politics with a small ‘p.’”

That means funding for community groups, congregations, recreation leagues, he says, because grassroots organizations become hot houses for political expression, and a renewed interest in the possibilities of the democratic process.

“Hispanic organizations,” Bishop says, “were popular in 1990s. After 9/11, the public became suspicious about foreigners, outsiders. Now, after the big demonstrations in April and May, that’s beginning to change.”

One unexpected development resulting from the May marches has been new-found unity among minorities, activists say.

Tammy Kelley-Rouse, a Greensboro human-rights activist, says the demonstrations forged new alliances.

“Different denominations are working together to find a common cause,” she says.

Hispanics and African Americans, for example, are starting to interact, she says.

“I hear African Americans saying that the demonstrations reminded them of the power of the civil rights movement,” she says, “and that people in their own organizations feel less complacent now.”

Movement organizers are focusing on Washington, D.C., where Congress has not resolved the crucial issue of Hispanic immigration, and the Republican leadership remains deeply divided.

President Bush and Senate leaders want legislation that calls for border security and guest worker status, but the House wants to focus on enforcement.

Skepticism about the aims of politicians reigns within the immigrant community.

“Congress is backsliding like crazy,” says Attracta Kelley, an immigration attorney with the N.C. Justice Center.

She says doubts that Congress will have the courage to enact any significant new legislation.

Inaction could have an impact in November, said Parra of the North Carolina Latino Coalition, because if the May marches demonstrated anything, it was that Hispanics can exercise clout.

“It also shows that Hispanics need change,” he says. “This will be our issue in November.”

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