Influence of Immigrant Voters in Iowa Grows
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When Iowa hold its first in the nation vote on January 3rd, thousands of Hispanic voters will participate. In a state with more than two million registered voters, those Hispanic votes don't add up to a decisive block, but it is a growing block of voters and hard to ignore.
NPR's Carrie Kahn reports.
CARRIE KAHN: By most estimates, there may be as many as 40,000 Hispanic voters in Iowa. That's not a huge number, but check out the other stats. The state has been experiencing record in migration. Since 2000, there's been a 39 percent increase in the number of Hispanics living in Iowa.
Bernard Ortiz is set on finding every eligible voter he can among these new comers.
Mr. BERNARD ORTIZ (Union Organizer, Service Employees International Union): Welcome to my office.
KAHN: Ortiz's office consists of a small folding table by the front door of La Favorita market in east Des Moines. Next is the soda machine and Mexican snacks, he's taped a large handwritten sign in Spanish on the wall.
Mr. ORTIZ: It just says, register here, register, inform yourself, and engage.
KAHN: Got lots of exclamation points?
Mr. ORTIZ: Well, yeah. We got to be firm on this.
KAHN: Ortiz, a local union organizer, is firm, unyielding in his optimism that a Hispanic voting block can be built in Iowa. He says he's sick of politicians scapegoating Hispanics, or worse, ignoring them.
Mr. ORTIZ: We could really have a major power here in Iowa, you know. I think we can pull out several thousand new registered voters, people that nobody is expecting. And that's my goal.
KAHN: But as he routinely finds when asking customers at La Favorita, most are not eligible to vote. The majority of Hispanics in Iowa have recently arrived from Mexico and Central America - many illegally - to work in the state's poultry and pork plants. But among those who did come legally and have established residency, there appears to be a rush to become citizens and voters.
Ms. ANNE NAFIA(ph) (Volunteer, American Friends Service Committee): So August of 2003...
Unidentified Man: Yeah.
Ms. NAFIA: ...to the present.
KAHN: Anne Nafia should know. She helps eligible applicants fill up their citizenship applications at the American Friends Service Committee office in Des Moines. She says in the past six months, she's seen a substantial surge in citizenship applications.
Ms. NAFIA: When immigrants first came to Iowa, you know, it really was to work and save up money. A lot of people thought they would save up money and go back home. A lot of Latinos have really liked Iowa, and they've decided to settle down and make it their home; they've bought houses. And as they've seen, especially as they've seen, you know, legislation really go against immigration, I think they've started to realize they need to become more politically active.
KAHN: On a recent cold fall evening, Nafia helps Iowa State Political Science Professor Patricia Hamm fill out her citizenship application. Hamm has been a permanent resident of the U.S. for more than 20 years, but says she wants to vote this year because immigration has become such a big issue. Hamm says the Republican presidential candidates' hard-line stance against illegal immigration plays well with conservative voters in the state, but she warns it will alienate future Hispanic voters.
Dr. PATRICIA HAMM (Political Science, Iowa State University): It makes sense in the short-term, but not in the long-term. Because, you know, there's always a memory there.
KAHN: Hamm points to California where Republicans backed an anti-illegal immigration initiative 13 years ago turning Latinos against the GOP in the nation's largest state. The issue is complicated for Democrats campaigning in Iowa as well. Just last week, Hillary Clinton came out against driver's license for illegal immigrants - John Edwards, too -and all of the Democratic contenders say they would do more to strengthen enforcement along the U.S.- Mexico border.
Well, that plays well with blue-collar Iowans, but risks a backlash from Hispanic voters and other early primary states like California and New York. It also ticks off Bernard Ortiz back in Des Moines.
Mr. ORTIZ: You know, that's my party, and I believe that they should be doing more than what they're doing.
And I think they're playing it safe, but they think they feel that they have a lot more to lose. But, eventually, we, the Latino community, the Latino vote here, eventually we will have a major face off.
KAHN: Eventually, yes, but now, not so much. And that's to be expected says Jesus Leopoldo Estrada, the Latino outreach coordinator for the Iowa Democratic Party.
Mr. JESUS LEOPOLDO ESTRADA (Latino Outreach Coordinator, Iowa Democratic Party): Until the Latino community can show that they are a viable force within the state then I don't think they're going to get as much attention. The Latino community is not organized enough to do that, and it's something that we were working towards.
KAHN: And something the presidential candidates who come here four years from now will have to contend with.
Carrie Kahn, NPR News.