As the presidential campaign gears up, pundits are urging candidates to heed the power of the Latino vote, particularly in battleground states like Florida.
For Erick Garcia, 25, the issue is personal. Garcia, a college-educated engineer from Arizona, is a member of a “mixed-status” family – his parents and sisters are U.S. citizens, but he is not.
Garcia joined some members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and student activists from Arizona, Maryland, New York and Florida Thursday to announce the launch of a civic engagement campaign targeted at Latino voters called “Su Voz, Mi Voto” – in English, Their Voice, My Vote.
“I would like to work and support myself, but I cannot,” said Garcia, who has lived in the U.S. since he was 11 years old. His lack of citizenship papers prohibits him from applying for work.
He said he began the citizenship process while in high school, but when he turned 21, he was pushed back on the waiting list. Legislation like the DREAM Act could help him and others contribute to the economy, Garcia said.
Although the activists living in the country without legal permission cannot vote, they said that will not stop them from encouraging others to do so.
“They are knowledgeable about the process, and will educate their community to register and vote,” said Rep. Ed Pastor, D-Ariz.
The activists, calling themselves “Dreamers”, said they planned to motivate and educate eligible voters in their communities by going door-to-door and using social media, including Facebook posts, Twitter and YouTube videos.
Groups involved in the campaign include Maryland-based Justice for Students in America, Dream Scholars of New York and the iDream campaign.
Their main goal will be to encourage Latino voters to be “a voice for undocumented friends and family,” particularly by voting for candidates who support the DREAM Act, said Erika Andiola, a former leader of Arizona’s DREAM Coalition.
“We will tell the voters who is with us, and who hasn’t been with us,” said Andiola, who now works for the DRM Capitol Group, the lobbying arm of the movement to pass the DREAM Act.
The 2010 act, which passed the House but stalled in the Senate, would establish a pathway to citizenship for certain illegal immigrants if they arrived in the U.S. as minors and had lived in the country for at least five years before the bill’s enactment. They would then need to graduate from a U.S. high school and attend college or serve in the military for at least two years.
Rep. Nina Velasquez, D-N.Y., said the issue is a moral one, although it has been used for political gain.
“As long as the GOP is the party of radical immigrant ideology, they will lose another generation of Hispanic voters,” said Velasquez. “This campaign encourages people not just to vote, but to use their vote to share their voice of themselves and others.”
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney has said he would veto the DREAM Act. Cuban-American Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., has suggested an alternative that would allow children who serve in the military to obtain legal status but not citizenship.
Romney has said the DREAM Act is part of a broader effort to grant “blanket amnesty” for illegal immigrants. He said in January that, if elected, he would focus on enforcing current immigration laws and expanding legal immigration.
“I think people, whether they’re Hispanic or non-Hispanic, I think people agree that we’ll enforce immigration laws in part to secure legal immigration as an important pathway to this country,” Romney said. “I like legal immigration, I want more legal immigration. But illegal immigration has to be stopped to make legal immigration possible.”
Andiola and others said they would welcome the opportunity to talk with Republican and Democratic politicians about the best way forward.
“The youth behind us work hard, play by the rules and want an opportunity to succeed,” said Rep. Raul Grijalva, D-Ariz. “We shouldn’t close the door on their dream. Politicians have used their opportunity as a political ploy.”
Jose Manuel Godinez, an undocumented person and recent law school graduate from Florida, said he hopes members of Congress will display “leadership where Obama has failed” on the issue of immigration reform.
Yajaira Saavedra of New York, who founded the advocacy group Dream Scholars, said she feels “blessed” to have obtained a bachelor’s degree though she is an illegal immigrant. Saavedra said she worked three jobs to afford her degree.
“I feel like others shouldn’t have to go through the same obstacles I did,” she said. “They have a barrier to achieve this level of education.”
“We don’t want a DREAM Act without the dream,” said Rep. Xavier Becerra, D-Calif.
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