Latinos Fight To Be Heard In Arizona

Nowhere in the country is the immigration debate more heated than in Arizona where a controversial new bill has been making headlines. Latinos comprise 30 percent of the state's population, yet they are not a powerful local constituency, relative to other states like New Mexico or Florida. Tuscon, Arizona-based NPR correspondent Ted Robbins explains why the demographic has been marginalized politically.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

And now we turn to NPR correspondent Ted Robbins, who'll talk to us about how a big issue of particular concern to many Hispanic voters is playing out there. The issue, of course, is immigration. Nowhere in the country is the immigration debate more heated than in Arizona, where the governor is considering a controversial bill passed by the legislature that would require police to question people about their immigration status. Just today, President Obama hosted a naturalization ceremony today for servicemembers and criticized the bill.

President BARACK OBAMA: I've instructed members of my administration to closely monitor the situation and examine the civil rights and other implications of this legislation. But if we continue to fail to act at a federal level, we will continue to see misguided efforts opening up around the country.

MARTIN: Ted Robbins is with us now from Tucson. Thanks for joining us.

TED ROBBINS: Oh, thank you, Michel. I'm glad I could be with you.

MARTIN: Now, the other reason we wanted to talk to you, of course, is this controversial immigration bill that just passed through the Arizona state legislature. It's signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer. It would require police officers to question individuals about their immigration status if they form a, quote, "reasonable suspicion" that the person is in the country illegally.

President Obama just talked about this earlier today, saying he feels that this bill is misguided. And as of course you know it's caused a lot of concern among civil libertarians and others who feel that this would lead to racial profiling.

So, Ted, I wanted to ask you, how is the Hispanic vote playing out in regard to this measure? As I understand it, some 30 percent of the population in Arizona is Latino.

ROBBINS: That's correct. So, it's, I think, the fifth largest in the nation. So, but now that's the population in general. So there are sort of two, there are two things that are circumstantial, there are circumstances and there are things within Hispanics' control that are affecting the situation.

The things that are circumstantial are the fact that a larger than general portion of the Hispanic population in Arizona is under 18. So, of course, they can't vote. And then there's also a lot of folks who are in the country either legally or not legally, but they can't vote because they're not citizens yet. So, if you pare them away, what you have is 17 percent of eligible voters are Hispanic. That's of the whole population. So they don't, you can see that that halves the number of total Hispanics in the state. So the numbers belie their electoral power.

MARTIN: Well, 17 percent is not an inconsiderable number. I mean, you can be a swing vote with 15 percent if you vote as a bloc. So, I wanted to ask, what impact does the Latino vote have on the politics of the state at this moment? As I understand it - strongly for John McCain in the past.

ROBBINS: Yeah, you just hit the nail on the head. If you vote. And the Hispanic population tends to vote at about 10 to 15 percent below the general pop— well, below the population of blacks and whites. And so they're not exercising their franchise in large enough numbers to affect things. And when they do, I think there are six members of the state senate, of 30 total and seven representatives, of 60 total, who are Hispanics, members of the Hispanic Caucus, all Democrats.

And the State House is controlled by Republicans. So, there are, you know, they can't control the debate there either. So, that's the part I think they can control, which would be to vote, to register and to vote more.

MARTIN: And so you're saying it's in part that people vote less, with less consistency than other demographic groups in Arizona, but also because the Latinos there tend to be concentrated in the Democratic Party. You're saying that right now with this, with the State House controlled by Republicans, they're basically ignored? Is that it?

ROBBINS: Well, you know, they're not the only ones. I think, you know, the Democrats would say they feel ignored as well. I mean, that's correct. So, yeah, it's...

MARTIN: So, finally, I wanted to ask, because there's always this question of whether there's a sleeping giant, given that there has been a strong reaction from Latino advocacy groups and other groups against this Arizona immigration bill. Do you feel that there's a possibility that this will galvanize voters there, Latino voters particularly in the state to become more active?

ROBBINS: I think it is and the reason being that the bill calls, should it be enacted, the bill calls for police to stop, you know, upon reasonable suspicion, as you've said at the top. And you do that, it actually allows the police to take race into account. So, boy, if they start getting stopped and they're citizens, you bet they're going to start speaking out.

MARTIN: Well, keep us posted. Ted Robbins is an NPR correspondent in Arizona. He joined us from his home office in Tucson. Ted, thanks so much for being with us.

ROBBINS: My pleasure.

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