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Latinos in US May Become Potent Political Force

The U.S. Senate is expected to again take up the issue of immigration reform. Some Hispanic immigrant advocacy groups are planning a one-day economic boycott on May first - the latest effort to press Congress to soften proposed measures against illegal immigrants. Recent huge rallies across the country have galvanized the Latino community, raising the prospect that a powerful new political movement may be emerging from what is now the largest minority group in the United States.

"Si, Se Puede - Yes, it can be done" has become the rallying cry for the hundreds of thousands of Latinos in the United States who have been demonstrating in favor of immigration reform legislation. The rallies -- sparked by a House of Representatives bill that would make it a felony to be in the country illegally -- have galvanized Hispanics and could create a potent political movement.

"Today we March, Tomorrow We Vote", is a loud and clear message to politicians in an election year.

Mickey Ibarra heads a government and public relations firm in Washington. "This is important -- the many demonstrations in so many cities. I think it is a turning point in the political maturation of the Latino community. I think the challenge for the community now is to turn the successful mobilization of the community into voter registration and mobilization."

And this is the challenge: of the 16 million eligible Latino voters in the 2004 election, just seven million cast ballots.

Low voter participation has meant the nation's 41 million Latinos are under-represented in the political arena, according to political scientist John Sides of George Washington University.

"So even though Hispanics and Latinos are growing as a fraction of the American population -- the fastest growing part of the American population -- that has not translated into political power commensurate with that numerical strength."

The prospect of punitive immigration legislation has brought together Hispanic Americans and undocumented workers for the first time in large numbers. While it may not be the start of a civil rights movement, the issue clearly has motivated Latinos.

Mr. Sides adds, "I think what it definitely is and what it definitely shows is that when a salient issue emerges that affects the lives of Latinos directly that they are ready to act on those interests and take it to the streets, and I think that sends a signal to policy makers that this is not a constituency that is content to remain outside of the political arena anymore."

Senators are trying to reach a compromise on an immigration measure that would allow undocumented workers a path to lawful employment and eventual citizenship for some. But a bill passed in the House focuses on border security and sanctions against the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants now in the United States.

Working out the differences will be a challenge for the Republican Party, which controls both houses of Congress. Gains by the party in attracting Latino support could disappear, according to Mickey Ibarra who served as a senior advisor to former President Bill Clinton.

"Certainly, If Republicans are blamed, and from my point of view they have got a lot of exposure, if they are blamed for a law that would make 12 million workers felons, I think the Latino community will end up outraged and they will point the finger at the Republican Party and they will punish them."

This happened in California in the mid-1990s, when Hispanics voted massively against Republicans after then-governor Pete Wilson supported a measure known as Proposition 187 that would have banned public services for illegal immigrants.

Those events in California may be on the minds of lawmakers as they work to shape immigration legislation. This is an election year, and opposition Democrats hope to regain control of Congress. How Latinos vote could determine the election's outcome.