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Hispanics Seek Stronger Voice in US Politics

Officials of a leading U.S. Hispanic organization say the mass demonstrations for immigrant rights held earlier this year are giving way to an effort to mobilize the vote among Hispanics. Officials of the National Council of La Raza will open a four-day meeting Saturday to discuss such issues as immigration reform, and look at ways to give Latinos a stronger voice in politics.

The National Council of La Raza began in the 1960s, and has become the largest Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States. President Janet Murguia says immigration reform tops the agenda at this year's national conference.

"We've taken a firm leadership role to try to advocate for comprehensive immigration reform," she said. "We recognize that the system is very broken, and we want to make sure there's a comprehensive reform that includes border security and enforcement, but that also helps us deal with the future flow of immigrants, so a future guest worker program, and with those individuals who are here and have been here, who are undocumented."

The organization supports the U.S. Senate version of an immigration bill that would provide a guest worker program for immigrants and offer a path to citizenship for some living and working in the country illegally.

A separate bill passed by the House of Representatives focuses on border security and would criminalize up to 12 million illegal immigrants. Opposition to that bill prompted this year's massive demonstrations. Neither bill will become law, however, unless both houses of congress can agree on compromise legislation.

Delegates to La Raza's four-day convention will hear from former president Bill Clinton, White House deputy chief of staff Karl Rove, Republican senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, and many Latino officials, including Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Delegate Angela Sanbrano of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles says organizations like hers are shifting their focus from the streets to the ballot box.

"In the last few months, we've seen millions and millions of immigrants and their allies that came out basically calling for a just and comprehensive immigration reform," she noted. "But we have to turn the energy of the marches into concrete political power, and one of the ways is by showing it at the ballot box, which is voting."

She says a coalition of Latino organizations is urging an estimated eight million immigrants who qualify for U.S. citizenship to apply for it.

The message is being communicated in many forums, including through the highly influential Spanish-language media. Spanish newspapers and broadcasters were largely responsible for getting crowds onto the streets for this year's mass demonstrations. Los Angeles-based syndicated radio personality Edward Sotelo, known on the air as Piolin, is heard in in 70 US Spanish-language markets. His morning show blends humor with opinion, and offers serious advice on subjects like immigration and politics.

"I'm trying to focus on this, to teach my listeners to understand that this is the only way we can demonstrate that we care about the United States," he said. "How? By becoming [legal] residents, then after you becoming residents, you become a U.S. citizen, and then be able to vote."

National Council of La Raza president Janet Murguia says the immigration issue dominates the landscape, but other topics are just as important to Latinos. Delegates will also look at ways to expand educational opportunities for the nation's 41 million Hispanics, to improve their health care and help them toward economic goals like home ownership. At the top of the list, however, is the effort to give Hispanics a stronger voice in politics.