Latino vote poised to flex muscle

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Nearly 7 million Latino and immigrant voters went to the polls during the 2010 midterms. To the surprise of observers, Latinos and immigrants made a huge difference from Colorado to Nevada and California — our turnout numbers may well have saved the U.S. Senate for the Democratic Party.

Since then, Latino and pro-immigrant electoral achievements have been even more impressive. The immigrant rights movement has racked up a string of local and national victories that should erase any doubts of our voting power: We are spearheading a demographic change that will completely upend political power dynamics in the country for generations to come. 

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So, we WILL vote. But the power and optimism of our movement is now being tested by President Obama’s appalling decision to delay relief for immigrant families. Squeamish Senate Democrats, some who owe their very seats to the Latino and immigrant vote, are complicit in this decision to sacrifice our families in deference to misguided political judgments. The painful move leaves our communities energized, but not in a way that Obama or Democratic leaders would like.

Our communities want to use their growing numbers to reward politicians who support their families’ priorities, and to punish those who do not. And this decision to continue deporting our family and community members has many in our midst wondering if we are caught between a terrible choice and a weak choice — the Republicans who attack our very identity as human beings or the Democrats who take our vote and then betray us.

To put it simply for politicos on Capitol Hill, the following question is now more open: Who deserves the Latino and immigrant vote? Take a trip outside of the Beltway and you’ll realize that Latino and immigrant voters are well past the point of frustration — not just because Obama breaks his promises to us over and over again, or that Republicans who briefly flirted with being serious about immigration reform have reverted to appeasing the anti-immigrant, anti-brown extremist elements of their base, but because our movement is winning and the inevitable immigration reform is now painted broadly across America’s political canvas.

Unbeknownst to the national political and commenting circles in D.C., Latino and immigrant rights groups have solidly transcended our label as simply president makers and Senate saviors. Out in the states, we’ve scored one victory after the other at the local level. From Florida to Illinois, California to Maryland, Washington state, Colorado, New York and elsewhere, groups are securing progress for immigrant families — locking in driver licenses and in-state tuition for undocumented people or breaking local-federal deportation partnerships — through the political system. These are hard-fought victories muscled out through organizing, fundraising, persuading, turning out when it matters and ultimately defeating our opponents fair and square in state legislatures and city councils. These are not signs of an electorate that should be ignored but of a burgeoning movement that has its best years ahead of itself. 

The Pew Hispanic Center says the Hispanic electorate will double by 2030. That means Latinos, and other immigrants, will hold increasing clout in every election going forward. Those taking us for granted will be awakened to a disturbing reality and those standing in our way will simply be assigned to the dust bins of history with opponents of the women’s vote, pro-segregationists and opponents of marriage equality.  

We are not in the business of winning elections for the sake of parties. We are building our power to serve the interests and needs of our families. The short-sighted focus by some on a 2014 electoral map that is concededly being fought mostly in places where our power is more nascent will be flipped in 2016. Both parties will need us. Democrats will come back in Congress only if they appeal to our voters, and Republicans can put the White House in the “forever lost column” right now if they continue to alienate us.

Through that lens, it’s not a matter of whether Latinos and immigrants will show up and vote but how they will vote. At a time when both parties are making one unforced error after the other, the answer is simple: Latinos and immigrants will hold politicians accountable to our families. Neither the hatred from the GOP nor the weak spines of the many Democrats will suppress our community’s vote or power.

We are asking political figures at all levels these questions: “Do you deserve our vote? What are you going to do for our families? Are you a family uniter or a family divider?” We are launching a campaign today with an unambiguous message to our people: We WILL vote, and those who ask for our vote need to prove they have something to offer our families. 

The political gate to our community is as open as it has ever been. While this stems from a painful, immoral decision from Obama and the Democrats, in truth this could help usher in a much-needed political reset in Washington. This is an opportunity for politicians to move forward for our families — and our votes — on immigration and beyond.

Go ahead. We will be listening. 

Benito and Salas are co-chairmen of the Fair Immigration Reform Movement (FIRM) Executive Committee. FIRM is the nation’s largest coalition of immigrant rights groups, with members in 30 states.