SAN DIEGO | The nearly 200 immigrants who began the citizenship process at the National Council of La Raza's annual convention Saturday are exactly the sort who will determine whether Hispanics this year finally make good on their enormous political potential.
After decades of punching beneath their political weight, NCLR and its allies have vowed to boost Hispanic voter participation in this election by eating away at the gap between Hispanics eligible to vote and the number who turn out on Election Day.
"One of the themes that will definitely be established is you cannot expect to get to the White House and ignore this community," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, NCLR's director of immigration and national campaigns.
She said her group hopes to lower the nonparticipation rate and turn out 10 million Hispanic voters for the first time.
In 2004, 6.7 million Hispanics, or 47.6 percent of those of voting age and holding citizenship, cast ballots. The voting rate was far below the 60 percent of eligible blacks and 64.1 percent of all eligible Americans. Although the Hispanic population is larger, nearly twice as many black voters turned out as Hispanics.
In a sign that the presidential candidates expect this to be the year Hispanics live up to their potential, both of the major parties' presumptive nominees are completing the Hispanic triumvirate -- speeches to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO), the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and, this week, to NCLR. Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat, speaks Sunday, and Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, speaks Monday.
On Friday, NCLR President Janet Murguia challenged both presidential candidates to take a stand against "inaccurate and inflammatory language" she said those in both parties are using on the immigration issue, adding that "hate has hijacked the immigration debate."
As examples, she pointed to a leaflet from the Missouri State Democratic Committee that accused a Republican candidate of allowing 5 million illegal immigrants into the country and to a commercial being run by a Republican congressional candidate in Alabama using images of brown hands in handcuffs.
"Our political leaders can stop it," she said. "They should stop it."
Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama lay claim to leadership on a broad immigration bill that includes a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants - an issue that is helping drive Hispanic voters.
Like NCLR, Mr. Obama sees Hispanics as a treasure trove of untapped votes, and he issued a challenge at LULAC last week for them to live up to their potential.
"I truly believe that if we can register more Latinos, young and old, rich and poor, and turn them out to vote in the fall, then not only will we change the political map, and not only will I win the presidency, but you will finally have a government that represents all Americans," he said.
He said registered Hispanics could have erased the margins of victory for Republicans in New Mexico, Florida, Colorado and Nevada in recent elections.
"So while I know how powerful a community you are, I also know how powerful you could be on November 4th if you translate your numbers into votes," he said.
Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, in the opening keynote speech to NCLR on Saturday, encouraged Hispanics to back Mr. Obama in a minority alliance reminiscent of that between Martin Luther King and Hispanic labor activist Cesar Chavez.
"We can reach the mountaintop, we can break another barrier that will say to every American and everyone around the world that this is a place that judges you on the content of your character, not the color of your skin," he said.
He said electing Mr. Obama would prove the country is living up to its Founding Fathers' vision, though he confused the founding documents, placing the "all men are created equal" line in the Declaration of Independence as being "in the same Constitution, [that] said that a black man was three-fifths of a human being."
Mr. McCain, meanwhile, has gathered some of the key advertising and outreach players who helped President Bush win 40 percent of the Hispanic vote in 2004, and Mr. McCain's Spanish-language ad strategy has been a dominant theme of his campaign.
Mr. McCain was among the first Republicans to identify Hispanics as a critical voting bloc, delivering speeches decades ago about the importance of courting those voters.
Ms. Martinez De Castro said NCLR's goal for increasing Hispanic participation is not partisan and not about just one election. She said the organization is trying to get Hispanics invested in the political process, and at that point it will be up to the political parties to talk about the issues important to them.
"Parties need to do their jobs. If there are voters out there, parties need to figure out how they're going to connect," she said. "We are trying to make sure our folks are on the rolls so they get reached out to."
She said the dramatic increase in citizenship applications over the past year is evidence that today's immigrants, like previous waves, have the same goal of full participation in American society.
Saturday's citizenship drive is just one piece of a grand strategy. Other efforts include joint pushes by the NALEO Educational Fund, Univision and other organizations to push eligible Hispanics to apply for citizenship. Univision ran a program about completing the application process, Spanish-language newspapers included application materials in their editions and NALEO ran a call-in hot line to answer questions.
The organizers claim more than 1 million citizenship applications have been filed as a result of their efforts.
Saturday's workshop included volunteers who pre-screened applicants and made sure they had the correct documents, and lawyers who could advise them of potential problems.
The volunteers signed confidentiality statements so applicants could be more forthcoming in revealing their status and potential legal disqualifications such as criminal records.
Applicants left with a completed application that they could send to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
NCLR staffers said 35 percent to 40 percent typically turn out to be eligible and follow through on filing their applications.
Stephen Dinan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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