MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — The nation's largest Hispanic advocacy group says it must come up with a strategy to combat "a wave of hate" its leaders say came from talk radio's efforts to sink the Senate's immigration bill.
"That had an extraordinary impact in the Senate, and as a nation, I don't think we should be comfortable with the fact that the United States Senate responded to what was largely a wave of hate," Cecilia Munoz, the National Council of La Raza's senior vice president for research, advocacy and legislation, told The Washington Times after meeting with NCLR affiliates to talk about a new strategy.
Stung by the collapse of the immigration bill in the Senate last month, NCLR leaders and members at the group's annual convention in Miami Beach, which began yesterday, say they will have to start a campaign to register and mobilize voters, to warn against crossing the line in the debate and to force lawmakers to take a clear stand on what they are willing to tolerate.
"I think we have to shine a light on it," Ms. Munoz said. "At the end of the day, we believe people need to take sides, that you can't stand on the sidelines, especially if part of what is motivating the actions of the United States Congress is not really about the public-policy debate, but is about their discomfort with Latinos."
NCLR's convention continues today with addresses by the two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.
With Hispanics already considered a key swing voting group, both Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Obama are trying to win those voters for themselves in the primaries and for Democrats in the general election.
Meanwhile, NCLR is trying to make sure more Hispanic voters are to be won over in 2008. The organization held a workshop to help legal permanent residents begin the citizenship-application process, and 200 immigrants were lined up before the door opened yesterday morning, organizers said.
Janet Murguia, NCLR's president and CEO, told attendees that with the failure of the immigration bill, they are going to "double our efforts on civic engagement." She encouraged the affiliates to make voter registration more a part of their services back in their own communities.
The convention is a mix of advocacy and education, combining sessions on encouraging early-childhood reading and looking at how banks serve Hispanic communities with policy sessions on improving Jewish-Hispanic relations and working with black groups to advance minority rights.
And although immigration is a top-priority policy issue, NCLR also takes stands on a host of issues facing Congress.
The group backs bills to protect credit card users and make it easier for foreign-born workers to send remittances back home. The group also supports stronger assessment and accountability provisions when Congress updates the No Child Left Behind education bill, and it opposes efforts to make English the "official" language of the United States.
Speaking to delegates during lunch yesterday, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart, Florida Republican and a Cuban immigrant, urged them to help preserve Spanish.
"It is important that we emphasize the Spanish language and that we keep the Spanish language, and that we transmit that emphasis to our children and our grandchildren," he said.
The Senate's immigration debate included a fight over making English the official language, and the result was indecisive. The bill, which was blocked in a filibuster, would have tied increased resources for border security and workplace enforcement with a guest-worker program for future workers and a path to citizenship for most current illegal aliens.
Democrats who opposed it said it was unfair to American workers, while Republicans called it an unworkable amnesty for illegal aliens that was unfair to legal immigrants. Spurred by discussions on talk radio, callers flooded the Capitol switchboard demanding their senators oppose the bill, and many Republicans credited that phone traffic for killing the measure.
But Ms. Munoz told Hispanic activists that the fight appeared to be about race and national identity — a conclusion she said has been bolstered by recent floor debates.
She cited amendments she said would require even naturalized citizens to produce records showing they aren't claiming Social Security benefits for time they worked illegally and an amendment she said will come up later this month to apply to foreign-born legal residents and food stamps.
"All these people who have been saying to us, 'We just want people to follow the rules and be here legally; we have no problem with legal immigrants ...' — Well, they're going after legal immigrants on the floor [of Congress] about once a week," she said. "And some of those attacks don't just go after legal immigrants; they go after U.S. citizens, if they happen to be foreign-born. So that sounds to us like this is not about legal immigration. This is a broader attack, and that attack looks like it's against us."