- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 16, 2008

SAN DIEGO — The president of the nation’s largest Hispanic rights organization says the group will serve as referee for the immigration debate and back it up with what members expect will be record Hispanic voter turnout in November.

“It is time to take back the debate,” Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, said in closing NCLR’s annual convention - an event that saw both presidential candidates come to appeal for Hispanic voter support and try to explain their immigration positions.

“Not everyone rejoices in our success. The vitriol and hate that surrounded the immigration debate this year was a stark reminder that our road is long and filled with obstacles,” she said, adding that “hate speech is being parroted on the nightly news and by a number of politicians in both political parties.”

In the run-up to the convention, Ms. Murguia announced letters had been sent to both presidential campaigns asking the candidates to denounce those in their own party who she said have injected “hate” into the issue by campaigning against illegal immigrants.

The letter already paid off when Republican presumptive presidential nominee Sen. John McCain, in his speech Monday, took up her challenge and condemned “those who used the debate on immigration last year, not to respectfully debate the issue, as most did, but to denigrate the contributions of Hispanics to our great country.”

In an interview, Ms. Murguia said that was a welcome statement, though “I’m not sure how much effect it will have” on his party.

She said she is hoping Sen. Barack Obama, Mr. McCain’s Democratic opponent, will also respond to the challenge. Mr. Obama spoke to the convention Sunday and, while he did condemn “the hateful rhetoric filling our airwaves,” he did not take on politicians in either party who NCLR says are responsible for injecting that into campaigns.

In her closing speech, Ms. Murguia said they consider campaigning against illegal immigration the same as campaigning against immigrants and Hispanics in general.

“Make no mistake. This is about all of us,” she said. “Most Latinos aren’t immigrants. More than 80 percent of Hispanics in this country are U.S. citizens or legal residents. But, you can’t tell that just by looking at us.”

She listed several citizens and legal U.S. residents who have been detained or caught up in immigration raids.

Ms. Murguia said she hopes November’s elections will be the coming of age for Hispanic voters: “I would hope that on Nov. 5, there would be a message sent that the Latino community has projected their demographics into political strength.”

For the candidates, the tougher challenge here belonged to Mr. McCain, who has backed away from his support for a broad immigration bill; instead, he now says he must prove to voters the borders are secure before he can tackle legalization of illegal immigrants. He told Hispanic voters to look at his record and trust he will eventually get around to the legalization aspect.

“He’s asking folks to trust him and to base it on his record of an independent voice,” Ms. Murguia said. “I think Latino voters are going to be watching closely and assessing whether he would be able to fulfill that promise.”

She said there remains a fundamental problem with splitting the broad approach apart and imposing security first.

“While we appreciate the need for border enforcement and secure borders, we do believe you can do that while having broader reforms for the immigration system,” she said.

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