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Immigrant Vote Growing in Importance

An analysis of the recent U.S. elections underlines the growing influence of the Latino-American and immigrant vote in U.S.politics. U.S. politicians can no longer ignore Latino and immigrant voters.

The U.S. Hispanic population, for one, has grown by nearly 60 percent in the past decade, making it the largest ethnic minority. The Asian-American community has grown by nearly 50 percent.

The impact of that demographic shift was felt in the elections held earlier this month.

An analysis of the vote by the National Council of La Raza shows that Latino and immigrant voters made a difference in several states, including California, New Mexico and Georgia. More Latino and immigrant candidates also won positions in town councils, city and state governments.

Clarissa Martinez de Castro supervised the study for the Washington-based Hispanic-American lobby group. She says it is no longer enough for politicians to just repeat their campaign slogans in the language of the ethnic communities they want to target. "Latino and immigrant voters will respond to candidates who reach out to them, but it needs to be a lot more than just some words in Spanish, Korean, Chinese, and definitely a lot more than translating a message into one of those languages," she said.

Miss Martinez cites Iowa, where the pro-immigrant governor was re-elected, and an anti-immigrant candidate lost his race for the Senate. Immigration reform, she says, is not the only priority. "Immigration is not the only issue, in that education, access to health care, the economy and safer neighborhoods are of concern to every voter, [and] which Latino and immigrant voters are also very closely attuned to," said Clarissa Martinez de Castro.

She says immigrant voters' focus on issues also means less loyalty to a political party and more support for individuals who respond to their needs. Exit polls show that Latinos, for one, supported or opposed candidates for top positions in New York, Florida and California based on issues, not party loyalty.

La Raza Vice-President Cecilia Munoz says politicians need to capitalize on voter enthusiasm in immigrant communities. "There is enormous energy in these communities, focused on voting, focused on first-time voters, focused on people who are eligible to vote, but haven't been likely to vote up to now," she said.

But Miss Munoz says there is a far greater potential immigrant vote, once the backlog of processing citizenship applications is cleared.

Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum says that has important consequences for both the Democratic and Republican parties in future campaigns. He cites the La Raza report's estimates of potential new voters in the next presidential campaign in 2004. "There will be a million new voters, based on trends," said Frank Sharry. "This is the possibility. This is predictable. So, obviously, in a country so closely divided, and given how close the popular and electoral votes were in the last [presidential] election, a million new voters is obviously a prize that both parties are looking at with great interest."

There are currently more than 700,000 citizenship applications in the pipeline, and demographic statistics show that one-third of Hispanic Americans have yet to reach the voting age of 18. Analysts say they represent another strong voice in the electorate.