x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Hispanic voters 'find their voice' and US politicians are taking note

Both Democrats and Republicans have been reaching out to Hispanic communities across the US and especially in swing states such as Virginia. They have reason to.

Hispanic speaking delegates wave banners during Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's acceptance speech in Tampa, Florida. The Hispanic population in the US grew by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2010, surpassing 50 million and accounting for about one of six Americans.
Hispanic speaking delegates wave banners during Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's acceptance speech in Tampa, Florida. The Hispanic population in the US grew by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2010, surpassing 50 million and accounting for about one of six Americans.

ANNANDALE, VIRGINIA // The first 12 years were the hardest, said Fanny Smedile.

The mother of three had left behind her children and job as an accountant in her native Ecuador to work 14 hours a day as a housekeeper.

Now, after 24 years in the United States, remarried to an "Anglo" and reunited with her children, the 56-year-old from Charlottesville, Virginia, said things were getting better. And not just for her: Virginia's Hispanic community, she said, was finding its voice.

"I see a different community now," said Ms Smedile, a community organiser, as she attended a conference on immigration reform in Annandale on Friday. "We are learning to organise," she said at the event organised by the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organisations.

Politicians are taking note. Both Democrats and Republicans have been reaching out to Hispanic communities across the US and especially in swing states such as Virginia. They have reason to.

The Hispanic population in the US grew by 43 per cent between 2000 and 2010, surpassing 50 million and accounting for about one out of six Americans.

By 2050, according to projections by the US census bureau, Hispanics could make up one third of the US population. Growth figures are even more impressive in Virginia, where Barack Obama, the incumbent US president, and Mitt Romney, his Republican challenger, are currently running neck and neck.

From 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic community in the state increased by 92 per cent. Today, Hispanics make up eight per cent of the state's population and 2.2 per cent of its voters.

"That's the ball game, right there: lock up all those votes and get them out," said Alfonso Lopez, the first Latino Democrat elected to Virginia's general assembly.

The stakes could not be higher. In a tight presidential election where only a handful of states are up for grabs, Virginia's 13 electoral college votes could prove crucial. Virginia's 2006 senatorial race was determined in favour of the Democratic candidate by less than half of one per cent of the vote, and both the Democratic and Republican campaigns have hired staffers dedicated to targeting Hispanic voters in the state, which was unprecedented, said Mr Lopez.

Both campaigns have also released campaign advertisements in Spanish. With 69 per cent of Latino voters nationwide saying they support the incumbent president, according to the latest data from Pew Research, and only 21 per cent favouring Mr Romney, the advantage lies with Mr Obama.

But the same poll also finds that Latinos are less certain that they will vote, something Democrats in particular are trying to address. Among those working to do so is Alex Valencia, 26, a northern Virginia field coordinator for the Virginia New Majority.

The group was established in 2007 to encourage eligible voters among what Mr Valencia described as a "coalition of progressives, communities of colour and the immigrant community" to cast their votes on polling days.

"This is a checkmate state," Mr Valencia told a group of about a dozen volunteers assembled at the offices of a local machinists' union in Herndon before they embarked on an exhausting evening of door-to-door visits to convey to the urgency of voting.

"It could decide the election."

Republicans have only belatedly taken notice. Until Mr Obama won the state in 2008, Virginia was reliably Republican, a mostly white southern state of rural conservative bent.

But a huge influx of immigrants, mostly Latino and Asian, especially in the Northern Virginia area around Washington, is changing that. Whites still account for more than 70 per cent of the state's population, but the nearly 30 per cent of the population that is non-white is only expected to grow.

And the top concerns for Hispanic voters, according to an October 11 Pew poll, are Democratic priorities: education, jobs and the economy, health care and immigration. Those concerns should come as no surprise, said Reverend Eduardo Carrillo of the Annandale United Methodist Church.

First-generation immigrants often take lower-paid jobs that usually have no benefits, pouring all their resources into their children's education, he said. "If they don't have access to health care, for example, they are going to be struggling," Rev Carrillo said, citing cases in his own parish.

The five labourers looking for work outside a large supermarket chain not far from Rev Carrillo's church have little hope of health care: cash-in-hand work brings no benefits. But the election was something played out far from their immediate concerns.

"I just want work," said one of the men in his best English. He said he had come from Honduras to look for a better future but did not want to be further identified and only shrugged his shoulders when asked about the election.

A police car lurked nearby, making the men uncomfortable.

Under laws adopted in conservative, Republican states such as Arizona and Alabama, and also under consideration in Virginia, police have the power to demand to see proof of immigration status under "reasonable suspicion".

The law invites racial profiling, say critics. Such an issue galvanises the Latino community, which is already more excited about this election than the 2008 election, Mr Lopez said, in which Hispanics overwhelmingly supported Mr Obama. Fond of pointing out that in his district alone, 108 languages are spoken, Mr Lopez suggested the fight over immigration was evidence his party was better placed to appeal to this "rich tapestry" than Republicans.

"It's the future," said Mr Lopez. "[Republicans] aren't taking the long view, it's all about right now for them. It's not based on any kind of nuanced understanding of demographics, what we are as a community, what we are as a welcoming community."

okarmi@thenational.ae