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Latino Support for GOP Drops Amidst Increasing Hysteria over Immigration

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Although immigration is not yet a major campaign issue, it is one that presidential hopefuls cannot afford to ignore. At 15 percent of the population, Latinos form the largest non-white community in the United States, and Latino voters are an increasingly important constituency. We speak with Jorge Mursuli of Democracia USA and Deepak Bhargava of the Center for Community Change. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The 2008 presidential election is a year from this Sunday. Although immigration is not yet a major campaign issue, it is one that presidential hopefuls can’t afford to ignore. At 15 percent of the population, Latinos form the largest non-white community in the United States, and Latino voters are an increasingly important constituency.

And Latino support for the Republic Party is steadily dropping. Lionel Sosa, a longtime Republican supporter and Hispanic marketing consultant, announced Tuesday he will no longer back Republicans, is instead supporting New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. Sosa said Republican presidential hopefuls are “fighting to see who is more anti-immigration,” he said.

Sosa’s defection comes on the heels of the abrupt resignation of Senator Mel Martinez of Florida as the chair of the Republican National Committee. Martinez also cited frustration with his party’s anti-immigrant [tenor]. Countrywide, Latino support for Republicans has been slipping since 2004, when over 40 percent of Latinos voted for George W. Bush. In 2006, this dropped to less than 30 percent. Pollster John Zogby said last year that the Republican campaign against illegal immigration is “a key factor in Hispanic disillusionment.”

Right-wing radio hosts have played an important role in the anti-immigrant campaign. Let’s turn now to an excerpt of Savage Nation host Michael Savage’s radio broadcast on July 5th of this year. This is Michael Savage commenting on a student-led fast in San Francisco that called for immigration reform.

MICHAEL SAVAGE: Then there’s the story of college students who were fasting out here in the Bay Area. They’re illegal aliens, and they want green cards simply because they’re students. I don’t understand how this two and two adds up. I would say: let them fast 'til they starve to death. Then it solves the problem, because then we won't have a problem about giving them green cards, because they’re illegal aliens. They don’t belong here, to begin with. They broke into the country. They’re criminals. Why do I owe them a green card? Because they’re going to my colleges for free? This makes no sense at all. Go give your talents to your home country. Go be an engineer there. You stole the education from us; now give it back to your home country. Go make a bomb where you came from. This is unbelievable.

AMY GOODMAN: That was right-wing radio host Michael Savage on July 5.

To discuss the growing importance of immigration in the coming election, I’m joined by two guests. Jorge Mursuli is the national executive director of Democracia USA, a national nonpartisan Latino civic engagement project founded in 2004 by People for the American Way. Deepak Bhargava is the executive director of the Center for Community Change, a 40-year-old community building group based here in Washington, D.C. We welcome you both to Democracy Now!

Jorge, let’s start with you. Talk about Hispanic/Latino voting strength in this country now. What are the states we’re talking about where we’re actually going to see a majority minority in this country?

JORGE MURSULI: Well, I mean, I think that obviously there are states like California that have over three million Hispanic voters; you have Texas, obviously, and New York and Illinois, that sort of make up a large bulk. But what you’re starting to see in the Southwest, in states like New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Nevada, is that that’s really where a lot of the population is moving to, that’s really where the significant gains are being made electorally for the Hispanic community. And then you have, sort of on the other side, you have Florida, who is not only growing in terms of — continuing to grow in terms of electorally, but also demographically you’re starting to see a much more progressive voting population there. So that’s really the way to look at it, I think.

I mean, clearly, outside of that, you have a lot of new communities that are — the truth of the matter is that one of the reasons you’re seeing a lot of these local anti-immigrant ordinances is because you’re starting to see Hispanic populations or immigrant populations, in general, in the places that people have never seen them before: Raleigh, Durham, you’re starting to see Georgia; Omaha, Nebraska; Iowa; Oregon; etc. So, I mean, it really is happening everywhere, but where we’re looking at it in ’08 is, I believe, you know, Florida, the four states that I mentioned in the Southwest, and then you have, of course, the stalwart, the foundations, which is California, Texas, Illinois and New York.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to play an excerpt of Bill O’Reilly’s radio program. This was recorded by the media watch group Media Matters, which has posted the clip on its website.

BILL O’REILLY: America is run primarily by white Christian men, and there is a segment of our population who hates that, despises that power structure. So they, under the guise of being compassionate, want to flood the country with foreign nationals — unlimited, unlimited — to change the complexion — pardon the pun — of America. Now, that’s hatred, too. […]

Now, this is a theme of The New York Times, that if you oppose the immigration bill, that you hate Latinos. Now, there’s a segment that does, but most oppose it on policy. They just think it’s bad policy, rewarding bad behavior. Bad policy. But The New York Times, which is an open-border, “OK, let everybody in” concern — that’s what they want, because they want a totally different power structure in America.

Number one, they realize that 40 million new citizens — and that’s, you know, probably the estimate that if you let all the illegal immigrants and all their extended families come here, which is what The New York Times want, would wipe out the two-party system. You’d only have a Democratic party, because new immigrants are probably going to break three-to-one Democrat, and that’s what The New York Times wants. But more than that, they want to change the white Christian male power structure. That’s what they want.

Now, these are hidden agendas. The New York Times would never cop to that, ever, but if you read consistently their editorials, they have no solution to border security. They don’t want any sanctions on illegal aliens who come here and even commit crimes. They want criminal aliens to stay. And they don’t want any sanctions on businesses who continue to hire illegal aliens even after the Z visa is issued.

It’s an open border: “Let them all in, anybody who wants to come here.” That’s insane. We don’t have America then. America disappears. That’s where Pat Buchanan is right. You let that happen, there’s no more United States of America. It’s gone. You have United States of the World, because everybody comes here with no restrictions. So you’ve got racism on the anti-Latino front, and you have racism on the anti-Christian white male front. Aha! Isn’t that interesting?

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Bill O’Reilly in his radio show. This is a nation run by “white Christian men,” and immigrants don’t like this, which is why they’re coming here. Your response, Deepak?

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Well, we’re seeing a real campaign of racialized hate in this country. And I wish it was just this talk shows and Lou Dobbs and Michael Savage, but we’re actually seeing it play out in government policy.

So, just a couple stories to give you a flavor for how deeply and profoundly this is going wrong. Edimar, a 34-year-old Brazilian immigrant was stopped this August in Rhode Island, routine traffic stop, picked up by Immigration and Customs Enforcement, put in custody, wasn’t allowed access to his medication; he died an hour later.

Second story, Peggy —

AMY GOODMAN: His mom tried to bring —

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: His sister tried to — pleaded with the police to allow them to bring him his medication, was denied. He died.

Second story, Peggy, a homeowner in Long Island, for the second time her home was raided by ICE for somebody who didn’t in fact live there and had never lived there. Her family was terrorized for hours. Peggy is a United States citizen.

So we’re seeing this administration unleash a wave of terror in communities, and it’s clearly targeting Latino communities. There’s explicit racist hate talk radio and television that’s pumping up the volume. We’re in a very, very dangerous place in the United States, in terms of the level of the discourse.

AMY GOODMAN: Have you seen, Deepak, the Latino, the Hispanic community changing —- I mean, this pulling away from the Republican Party because, though they may disagree over immigration themselves -—


AMY GOODMAN: —and immigration policy, the way it’s being addressed?

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: It’s clearly become an issue not just for undocumented immigrants, or even for legal immigrants, but Latinos who have been in the country for many generations are finding themselves attacked and scapegoated, being told they don’t belong in the United States. And I think this is producing a tidal wave of response in Latino communities to this level of hate. What we have yet to see is a response from other communities, where we see a response to this kind of hate.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you doing at Democracia USA, Jorge, around the country? How are you organizing for the election?

JORGE MURSULI: Well, in a lot of different ways. Obviously, we are — we hope that we are able to, and I think we will be able to, take this sort of this angst, you know, the anxiety, this sort of reaction that you’re seeing in immigrant communities — in the Hispanic community, in particular — against this kind of vitriol that we’re seeing from the right-wing conservatives in this country, like what we just heard, and turn that into electoral power, teach folks in communities that may not have had that — the voting registration experience, may not know how to register, may not know how to vote, but certainly know, “My god, I now have to get involved. I now have to do something, because the kinds of things that I’m hearing are sort of unacceptable.” So we’re certainly doing that.

We’re also helping people organize in communities around issues that are important to them. Some of them have to do with immigration. There’s like, I think, 220-something local municipalities that have dealt with anti-immigrant ordinances, where the hate has been really real obvious. Ordinances are being passed where they’re fining landlords for $1,000 a day, for example, for renting to quote/unquote “illegal aliens.” These kinds of things are happening to people. Their families are being separated, as the examples that you just heard. They’re very dramatic kinds of things; they’re not just policy. And that is, I think, the issue for most Hispanics, is that these are not just policy issues. These are life-changing issues. They’re very dramatic in many instances.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you surprised when Mel Martinez quit as head of the RNC?

JORGE MURSULI: You know, that’s a good question. I don’t know that surprise — I guess I wasn’t surprised, because in the end, when you have an immigrant experience, it’s hard for you to separate yourself from that. You know. He’s a Peter Pan kid. He was separated from his parents.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what you mean by “Peter Pan kid.”

JORGE MURSULI: Peter Pan — Cuban immigrants in the early ’60s who wanted to see where the revolution was going sent their kids to the United States through the Catholic Church. And thousands and thousands of kids were separated from their parents, some of them for six, seven, eight years, before their parents got here from the United States. He was one of them.

He knows about family separation. He knows about what it’s like to be in a country and not understand the language and have to sort of create a new life. And he has been one of those people that has benefited from the opportunities and the American dream. He’s a great example of that, and, you know, regardless of his ideology. So at the end of the day, I think that stung him, and the fact that his colleagues were speaking of immigrants in such disparaging manner had to have stung him in many ways.

AMY GOODMAN: And the changing Cuban population in Florida?

JORGE MURSULI: Well, that’s a very interesting thing. I mean, there’s several ways to look at it. The demographic is changing in several ways, where Cubans are no longer the majority in Florida. There’s also within the Cuban community a huge shift from the Republican to the Democratic Party. And part of that has to do with two reasons. One is that the younger Cubans have a tendency to think differently about the relationship between this country and Cuba, and thus the — all that rhetoric that I think the Republican Party sort of feeds off. But additionally, there’s also lots of Cubans that arrived in the '80s and the ’90s that have a different, also, immigration experience from the elders. So what you're seeing is those sort of right-wing folks have a tendency to be, you know, 60, 70, 80 years old. And, of course, you know, nobody lives forever, so I think that demographic is slowly changing.

However, I mean, it’s not so black and white. We still have to continue to invest in those communities. We still have to sort of introduce them to the democratic process with a progressive point of view.

AMY GOODMAN: Deepak, voter ID laws, how do they affect the immigrant community?

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: This is a huge new issue, so states are passing voter ID laws across the country that may be targeting immigrants, to start, but their effect is not only to discourage immigrants, but low-income people, African Americans, seniors, anybody who’s unlikely to have documentation or driver’s license, are being discouraged from participating. And it should be noted that it’s really extending to the mainstream community. So, Oklahoma, a law went into effect yesterday that would make it a crime, with up to a year in prison, to transport an undocumented immigrant, even if you’re saving them from a fire, from a flood, taking them to the emergency room. So we’re seeing a level of criminalization that’s not just going to chill immigrant communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So you see a person who is in a car accident —


AMY GOODMAN: —- and you want to race them to the hospital -—

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Yes, and it would be a crime —

AMY GOODMAN: — you’re supposed to ask them for their papers.

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: You’re supposed to ask them for their papers, and if they’re undocumented, you’re supposed to leave them at the side of the road.

AMY GOODMAN: And this has gone into effect in Oklahoma.

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: It is the law of the land in Oklahoma. I’m sure there will be constitutional challenges to it. But we are seeing a kind of race to the bottom now, with states and localities competing to see how badly they can treat immigrants and immigrant supporters. And I think it’s a campaign, really, to chill participation in these communities, and also it’s a campaign to chill support for these communities from other progressive allies.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, how are you organizing against this?

DEEPAK BHARGAVA: Well, we’re supporting community groups around the country to fight these ordinances and fight these state initiatives, and we’re trying to do outreach to other communities — the religious community, progressives, African Americans — so we can build a wall of solidarity against this hate that we’re facing.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Jorge Mursuli, national executive director of Democracia USA, and Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, based in Washington, D.C.

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