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The Coming Battle Down South: Latino Voters vs. Anti-Immigrant Lawmakers

Julianne Hing Mar 10, 2012

Georgia found a way to top its own anti-immigrant lawmaking record this week when the state Senate voted on Monday to ban undocumented immigrant students from all public colleges in the state.

If passed, the ban, which has yet to advance out of committee in the House, will expand a 2010 law that forbids undocumented immigrants from enrolling in Georgia’s top five most competitive colleges. Georgia is also currently defending HB 87, an SB 1070-inspired law that allows state law enforcement to question and detain anyone they suspect may be undocumented, against a federal challenge. While immigrants have turned out all over the country through civil disobedience and mass protest, the question remains: will the immigrant community and Latino voters be able to defend their community at the polls?

For years, Republican lawmakers have bet no. Georgia, like other states in the South, responded to the economic downturn and concurrent demographic changes with a spate of anti-immigrant lawmaking. A coalition of civil rights groups and the federal government are currently suing South Carolina and Alabama for similar SB 1070-like laws. And Mississippi is again contemplating its own copycat this year.

“These types of attacks against the community will continue unless Latinos get registered, demand respect and go vote,” said Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “The issue of immigration and how immigration is handled is an issue of respect, and we can no longer stand for the attacks being leveled against us.”

Gonzalez said that anti-immigrant bills had galvanized his community. Still, immigrants may be a long way off from being able to hold elected officials accountable in an electoral strategy. While the nation is bearing witness to rapid demographic changes that are fundamentally changing the face of the country, there is still a large gap between the numbers of Latinos and immigrants registered to vote, and their community’s true size.

Latino and Asian immigrants are the fastest growing segments of the U.S. population, and they’re not just headed to metropolitan hubs along the coasts. States in the South have seen their immigrant populations multiply in the last few decades, according to the U.S Census. In Georgia, for instance, immigrants made up 2.7 percent of the state in 1990. Twenty years later, the foreign-born population had grown to just under a million people, nearly 10 percent of the state. From North Carolina to Mississippi, states in the South have recorded similarly exponential growth in the same span of time.

It’s slowly translating to voting power, as well. In 1996, 78 percent of Georgia’s registered voters were white. But in the 2008 elections, just 62 percent of the state’s registered voters were white, said Charles Bullock III, a professor political science at the University of Georgia. Demographic changes are just one reason why voters of color were registered in such high numbers in 2008, Bullock said, but added that it’s a one-way shift right now. And when it comes to the long-term trend, “I don’t think that trend is going to reverse,” Bullock said.

“But Latinos as a whole don’t engage in elections on parity with their numbers is society,” said Celeste Lay, a professor of political science at Tulane University.

Indeed, according to the Georgia Elections Division, as of the first of this month, Latino voters are still less than two percent of the state’s registered voters. A larger proportion of registered voters—4.3 percent—claimed their race as “Other.” Low voter registration rates are why the Latino population might seem like an easy segment to anger, or ignore.

That’s something folks in Georgia are working on changing this year. Gonzalez of GALEO said his group is part of a campaign called ¡Orale! 10 to register and encourage Latinos to vote. It’s a three-part ask to get Latinos to pledge to register 10 new voters, volunteer 10 hours of time and donate 10 dollars to help voter registration and engagement.

Gonzalez insists that Latino civic engagement is high, but that immigrants and Latinos face a number of structural barriers, and hold onto some misconceptions about the risks of getting involved in the political process. Even though registering to vote is seemingly straightforward, for example, Georgia isn’t required to provide voting materials in Spanish, Gonzalez said, and many people fear government intrusion into their lives.

“There are many mixed status families in Georgia, and they wonder: If I register to vote will I bring greater scrutiny to my family?” he said.

The spate recent anti-immigrant lawmaking throughout the South provides an organizing opportunity for Latinos, Gonzalez said.

Gonzalez says his message to eligible Latino voters in Georgia is simple: “The bottom line is, if you’re a citizen you have an added responsibility because you are not just representing your own voice, but your family’s voice. As citizens we have to make sure we can speak up for our hermanos and hermanas who are undocumented and make sure they are respected.”

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