Yesterday, over 150 people at La Placita Olvera, Los Angeles, began the largest hunger strike in American history. The "Fast For Our Future" will last for 21 days, or until one million voters have pledged to vote for immigrants’ rights.
Kai Newkirk, a strike organiser and one of those fasting, says they are responding to the harsh and unjust immigration policies that have worsened dramatically since Congress failed to pass reforms in 2007.
"The escalation in the enforcement of the Bush Administration’s immigration policy is literally tearing our communities apart," says Newkirk. A massive rise in deportations, as well as heavy-handed raids on homes, workplaces and schools, have cowed many Hispanics into silence through fear of persecution and deportation.
"We want the Hispanic community to break out of fear, and we need to translate that fear into action," Newkirk tells us. "We want politicians to know that if they don’t reform this policy, they’re going to get voted out."
The strike is just one of a sweep of initiatives from Hispanic action and voter registration groups working to awaken what is known as "the sleeping giant": the 18,200,000 Hispanics eligible to vote. This giant is also starting to realise that it holds the key to four battleground states: Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico, and Florida.
America’s largest minority has typically had a "mañana" attitude to voting. In 2004, 46 per cent of Latinos voted, compared with 60 per cent of Blacks and 67 per cent of Whites. This reputation for apathy was turned upside-down in 2006, however, when a series of rallies across the country brought millions of previously invisible Latinos onto the streets to demand changes to immigration policy.
Some politicians initially responded with reform ideas, including an amnesty for "illegal" migrants. But when Congress returned the issue to the too-hard basket, many of those politicians, especially those in southwestern states where Hispanic populations are strong, crossed their fingers and hoped the apathy would hold.
Juan Guerrero, based in the dusty border town of Yuma in Arizona, is a lead organiser with "Mi Familia Vota", a group that’s been registering new Latino voters throughout America’s southwest. "These politicians know there’s a lot of apathy within the Hispanic community — they think we’re not going to vote anyway," he told us. "But you know what? We are going to vote, and you will see the numbers that we have."
Latino voters are indeed registering in record numbers, and according to a new poll by Latino Decisions, on 4 November nearly 90 per cent of Latinos eligible to vote in Florida, Colorado, New Mexico and Nevada will head to the polling booths.
Both candidates are fighting hard for this vote, having their photos taken at sacred sites in Mexico and making ads in Spanish. In July this year, at a speech to the League of United Latin American Citizens, Obama issued a direct call to action. "During the immigration marches back in 2006 we had a saying: ‘Today we march. Tomorrow we vote,’" he said. "Well, that was the time to march. And now comes the time to vote."
Obama is understandably keen to get Latinos to the ballot box. Until 2000, Latinos were a safe bet for the Democrats, traditionally voting for them over Republicans 2-to-1. But in 2000 and 2004, all four Latino battleground states voted for Bush, motivated primarily by moral issues. "New Mexico went to Bush in 2004 because of the pro-life vote," says Aaron Trujillo, a 24-year-old staffer for New Mexican Democrat candidate for Congress Ben Lujan.
Now, though moral issues are still potent, many Latinos have a lot more to be worried about. Aaron’s 47-year-old uncle has registered for the first time this year, after his grandmother’s pension was cut from $600 to $300 per month. "He’s voting Obama," Aaron tells us.
For reasons that include the economy, immigration, education, healthcare, and the war in Iraq, Hispanics are flocking back to the Democrats. According to the Latino Studies survey Colorado has Obama leading 71 per cent to McCain’s 18 per cent; in New Mexico, 67 per cent to 23 per cent; and in Nevada, 67 per cent to 20 per cent. Only in Florida do Republicans have the Latino majority, 45 per cent compared with 43 per cent for Obama.
This explosion in Hispanic voters registering to vote (40,000 of them turn 18 every month) is a particularly vexed issue for the Republican party. In 2007, McCain was the only Republican to support the immigration reform bill. Talkback radio hosts ridiculed his position, and his fundraisers found it increasingly difficult to do their job. Republican hardliners haven’t forgiven him for working with Democrat senator Ted Kennedy, and still refer to him as "Juan McCain".
Since then McCain has retreated from reform to the traditionally safer position of being "tough on border security", but many in the Republican base still find his stance too soft.
Some of those disaffected by McCain’s position pack pistols and rove the desert in groups. To get to know them a little better, we drive 30 miles down a desolate, gun-barrel straight length of road, a short distance from the deadliest route out of Mexico, the Devil’s Highway. At mile marker 37, we wait with four kinds of cacti for Shawna Forde, National Director of Minutemen American Defense, to escort us to the Civil Defence Corps base camp at Caballo Loco Ranch.
Ringed by SUVs, a handful of retirees sit around a table in front of a caravan, most of them armed. They are preparing for a midday barbecue, killing time until nightfall. We’re taken into the caravan to register our passports. On the fridge, a bumper sticker says "Vote out Osama, Obama, and Clinton’s Mama".
"We’ve created a movement in this country that’s like wildfire," Shawna tells us as we sit outside in canvas chairs. The Minutemen started patrolling the Mexican-American border for illegal immigrants in 2005, drawing fire from groups that claimed they were dangerous white supremacists. While Governor Schwarzenegger said they had done a "terrific job", President Bush condemned them as vigilantes. They currently have over 11,000 volunteers working along the border in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.
"People out in the community have the impression that we are racist and that we’re hurting people, which is just wrong," says Shawna. "The Minutemen have saved many lives in this desert. We offer aid, water, food, we get them support when we find them almost dying. Not one Minuteman has been brought up on charges, nor have they ever harmed anybody." Unless they find somebody in physical distress, they don’t approach, but notify Border Patrol. "We do not apprehend them," she stresses.
Gene Cafarelli, former NYC consultant and now Minuteman State Director, sees the securing of the border as the first step. They want to out employers using "illegal labour" and to have every non-resident deported. "I’m concerned about the downward pressure on wages for hard-working US citizens," he tells us.
As we listen, Gene sounds reasonable. But his evasion of the human complexity behind the issue ignores the thousand and one stories of human despair brought on by such systematic law enforcement (see for example this article by newmatilda.com‘s Jennifer Mills).
Around 12 million undocumented workers, with intimate connections to citizens Hispanic and non-Hispanic, are inextricably linked to the functional American economy. No policy reform is going to change this overnight.
As we write, it looks like McCain will carry his own state of Arizona and Obama will take Nevada, but New Mexico and the crucial Colorado are in a dead heat. Mi Familia Vota’s Guerrero is confident that Latinos will turn out in the numbers predicted. "In the elections before, we had to knock on doors to register people," he says. "Now, people are coming in to register themselves."
No matter who wins this election, one thing seems certain. When the Hispanic community wakes up on 5 November, they will finally have become a political force to be reckoned with.
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