About a million people took part in marches across the United States this year to voice their concerns about immigration reforms under consideration in the Congress. Young activists played a key role in the protests. VOA's Brian Wagner reports the demonstrations have sparked growing interest among other young people -- especially Latinos -- to take political action.
The protests over immigration reform grabbed headlines across the country and demonstrated strength of the nation's largest minority group.
Latinos represent about 14 percent of the U.S. population, but they often are underrepresented in national and local elections. Activists are seeking to change that imbalance in this November's legislative elections, by organizing voter registration efforts across the nation.
One of those drives is being organized by Amy Elliott, who says she was motivated by taking part in marches in her hometown of South Bend, Indiana.
"The momentum is very important to us. We had over 5,000 people walk with us in downtown South Bend. The majority were of Hispanic origin but a lot of them were not," says Amy. "We are just trying to take that energy and transform that into action. I think that's happening across the country."
Amy, whose father is from Mexico, was among dozens of young people seeking advice at a political training session for Latinos near Philadelphia. The trainees learned about raising money, organizing volunteers, preparing for elections and other skills to operate a campaign for a social cause or elected office.
Attendance at the sessions has swelled since the protests, according to Jano Cabrera, a communications associate for America Votes, which sponsored the session. "There is a great deal of interest to make sure people do not just march and forget about it," he says. "It is about taking the next step. Marching, being outraged for that moment but then organizing and making sure that on election day you do something about it."
The sessions draw on the experience of seasoned political experts like Irasema Garza, who is the political director of Working America, an affiliate of the AFL-CIO labor group. "On a personal level I'm very interested in making sure that the Latino community trains leaders and that they are going to be ready to go out for 2006 and 2008, for many reasons. Our community is growing; we are not doing the best in terms of voter turnout, etc. So just on a personal level I am very interested in that."
Latino leaders have expressed hope that politicians will start paying more attention to their community since the protests. They say immigration reform is a key issue, but they also have serious concerns about economic, social and other issues.
College student Jamie Miranda is an intern for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group. She recently attended a conference in Los Angeles to collect signatures for petitions to lawmakers. "The community I grew up in was not as representative of my concerns," says Jamie. "Being that I wanted to make some changes, and I saw that people had a voice and could make some changes by contacting their legislators and helping make decisions that will affect them potentially in the future."
One obstacle to greater political participation among Latinos is the failure of some immigrants to complete the naturalization process. That keeps them from voting and receiving other benefits. But since the protests, more people are requesting information on the process and seeking classes to prepare for the tests.
Rebecca Carly coordinates citizenship classes and other services for the Central American Resource Center in Washington. "We have definitely seen an interest. In fact our session started four weeks ago and every Saturday we have new people trying to sign up. We do not usually accept people in the middle of the session, but we want to accommodate," says Rebecca. "So we have seen an increase in that, also just applying in general. We have already exceeded the amount of applications we had last year in the past quarter."
One of the volunteer teachers is Megan Fletcher, who recently graduated from Georgetown University with a master’s degree in Latin American studies. "That is one reason I wanted to get much more involved because the immigration issue is something that is very close to my heart even though I am not an immigrant," says Megan. "A lot of people I have known over the years have faced difficulties with the immigration system and this is a way to give back."
She says students learn English, history and the meaning of citizenship, which has taken on greater importance recently. "Citizenship has a special meaning, particularly in the last few months for a lot of the immigrants here in the United States, as a lot are advocating for immigration reform," says Megan.
Protests against some of the most controversial immigration reform proposals have now largely died down along with the chances of a major immigration reform bill passing in Congress before the end of this legislative session. But mid-term elections are set for November and Hispanic leaders are hoping the energy seen in this spring's protests will be on display for Election Day in the fall.