Mobilizing the Latino Vote

Enrique Morones, founder and president of the Border Angels humanitarian group, is the organizer of Marcha Migrante, the catalyst for the massive nationwide immigration demonstrations in the spring of 2006. This week in San Diego, Morones kicks off Marcha Migrante III, an effort to increase Latino registration and turnout in the 2008 election. Morones, who was born and raised in San Diego and in 1998 became the first American to be granted dual citizenship with Mexico, is a frequent subject of verbal assaults from anti-immigration groups and pundits. He has worked for corporate America, including a stint as a marketing executive for the San Diego Padres, and has strong opinions on all the 2008 presidential candidates and their outreach to Hispanics. He spoke to NEWSWEEK'S Jamie Reno about the campaign and the increasingly influential Latino vote. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Your Marcha Migrante III will take you to more than 30 cities over 17 days from the Mexican border to the Canadian border. What do you hope to accomplish?
Enrique Morones:
This time we are stressing the importance of voting. Su voto, es su voz: your vote is your voice. We'll be holding rallies, community forums, vigils, interacting with migrants, and just talking about the importance of participating in the democratic process. Like any other American community, the Latino community is concerned with issues like education, health care, economic issues, and the war, and we are more sensitive to the immigration issue. With the first Marcha Migrante in 2006 we visited 40 cities in 20 states in 28 days, and you saw what happened. They did what we asked and took to the streets. This time we're telling people to vote, and that those who cannot vote can still participate—they can call people who are registered to vote; they can still get involved with causes and candidates.

How big an impact do you think Latino voters will have on this election?
Latinos will be the difference in this election. I believe we'll see some record turnouts from the Latino community on Super Tuesday, for example, especially in California and New York, which have such large Hispanic populations. I've never seen this community so galvanized.

Let's talk about the specific candidates and their outreach to Latino voters, starting with John McCain. How much support do you think McCain will get from Hispanics?
He will get some. I know his Latino outreach director, Juan Hernandez, and I've met John McCain and spoken to him. He has an immigration policy most Latinos can agree with. But he's has been disappointing with his switch back in recent months to an enforcement-first message, as opposed to his bill with [Massachusetts Sen.] Ted Kennedy, which is more comprehensive and humane. I understand we have to protect the border, but McCain should be more outspoken about the need for humane and comprehensive immigration reform.

Hillary Clinton has the early lead in terms of endorsements and support from the Latino community. Why does she seem to enjoy so much support from Hispanics?
First of all, she's a Democrat. Second, she has strong ties to leadership like the United Farm Workers and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. But the Clintons in general are perceived positively by Latinos. Yesterday I was with Maria Echeveste, a senior adviser to Hillary Clinton, at a forum in San Diego at a largely Hispanic high school. She's one of Hillary's many Latino supporters. Hillary has another advantage with her star power. If you walk down any street and ask any Latino if they know who Hillary Clinton is; most will say yes. If you ask them who Barack Obama is, a lot of them will say no. It's not a good or bad thing; it's just reality, and it's an advantage.

Speaking of Obama, he's ascending in the polls, especially in California, and is getting more endorsements from Latino leaders. But some say cultural rivalries between Hispanics and African-Americans will keep some Latinos from voting for Obama. Do you think that's true?
I think there is some of that in every community. There are Anglos who refuse to vote for an African-American and men who refuse to vote for a woman. But the Latino and African-American thing is overplayed a bit. Obama's endorsement from Ted Kennedy is a huge coup. Many Latinos who don't know Obama know who John Kennedy is. That name still has a lot of resonance in the Latino community.

Mitt Romney spoke recently in San Diego about the need for the nation to clamp down on illegal immigrants and not provide amnesty. What's your take on Romney?
His hypocrisy is astonishing. The reason Mitt Romney is alive today is that his father, who was born in Mexico, was supported by the sanctuary movement when Mormons were being persecuted. And now he's turning his back on those principles. Romney never brings that up. The person who introduced Romney yesterday at his San Diego rally was Congressman Brian Bilbray, who was a lobbyist for the extreme right-wing Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), founded by John Tanton. That tells it all right there. Romney is going after the Tom Tancredo, Duncan Hunter, Minutemen crowd. He's using the politics of fear and deception. He switches like the wind, but he's been firm on his anti-immigrant position.

How important is the endorsement of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson?
Very. It doesn't quite compare to Ted Kennedy's, but Richardson's support carries weight. Not so much his endorsement, but his campaigning. He speaks Spanish, he's part Mexican, he's one of us. Of all the candidates, Richardson was the most qualified to be president, with his experience with the United Nations, as secretary of energy, governor, congressman, ambassador, his negotiating the release of hostages, etc. He's a worldly person with a great reputation, but he's not the kind of person who fires you up when he speaks. I know him personally: he has charisma and is sharp, but he loses a lot of that on television. But he'll have a key cabinet position. That's why he's not endorsing yet.

How would you describe the tone of the illegal immigration discussion?
There are, understandably, more important issues to many voters, so the candidates aren't talking as much talk about immigration as they are about the economy, the situation in Iraq, the housing crisis—things that are important to all communities, including Latinos. But we are hearing more as the campaign moves to the Southwest. Most people in this country believe in diversity and human rights. The polls show that two-thirds of Americans want humane and comprehensive immigration reform.

What aspects of the immigration debate are the presidential candidates not talking about?
They need to do a better job of telling the truth and keeping hate out of the debate. They need to stop perpetrating the myth that there is some sort of line that poor folks from Mexico and Latin America can stand in to come here. There is no such line for the poor. And they need to stop talking about undocumented workers as if they're all criminals. The candidates also need to be reminded that more than 10,000 people have died at the border since Operation Gatekeeper was put into effect in 1994.

What else do you think the candidates need to be reminded of?
That there really are two Americas. John Edwards was right, and I'm sorry he's out of this race. I took a lead role in the recent devastating wildfires here in San Diego, and I saw how the wealthy Anglo communities were well taken care of but the poorer Latino communities did not receive the reverse 911 calls, etc. We all must be included in America's successes as well as our challenges, and we face strong challenges. The Latino community is patriotic, but we demand to be treated with respect.

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