AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
North Carolina is a battleground state this year. It features one of the races that could decide which party controls the Senate and it's a place where a new swing vote is emerging - Latinos.
NPR's Michel Martin is just back from Charlotte, North Carolina where she spent time with members of the growing Latino community and she joins us now.
Hey there, Michel.
MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Hi, Audie.
CORNISH: So this shift in North Carolina, it's not like totally new, it's a long time coming, but help us understand why so many Latinos have actually chosen North Carolina to settle?
MARTIN: Well, we wondered the same thing. Now, it used to be when you thought about the Latino vote, you thought the coasts, the southern border, the Southwest, perhaps Illinois, where Latinos have been established for generations. It turns out that the big move of Latinos to North Carolina came in the 1980s and they came from all across Latin America and you can see this that they are represented in a number of occupations. They own a number of businesses there and when we asked people why they moved specifically to North Carolina, they said for the same reasons that middle-class professionals of other ethnicities move there. They talked about quality of life, affordable housing and good schools. Let me introduce you to one of the people we met, her name is Deborah Aguiar-Velez. She's originally from Puerto Rico so she is of course not an immigrant, but her story was instructive. She is a chemical engineer by training, she's a successful small business owner and this is what she told us.
DEBORAH AGUIAR-VELEZ: I was looking for better weather and lower taxes. I used to live in New Jersey. I lived there for 31 years and when we came to Charlotte, I fell in love with the trees, the city's small, the people are nice, the food is good and the weather and the taxes are perfect. So we moved eight years ago and I think that was one of the best decisions I ever made.
MARTIN: You know and Audie, Deborah was one of five Latina professionals whom we met who talked about the fact that it can be an advantage to be Latino in North Carolina right now. Latinos are only 9 percent of the population, but they told us that the networking is excellent. People are very willing to share contacts and the community is growing quickly and that might be about to translate into some political influence, as well. Today, North Carolina has some 231,000 eligible Latino voters. That's up 49 percent since 2009, according to the census.
CORNISH: Up 49 percent and then the thing is, when you look at that figure - 231,000 eligible voters - it's really striking how young they are.
MARTIN: Very young. According to the Pew Hispanic Center - that's a research organization - the median age of Hispanics in North Carolina is 24 and many of these eligible voters are eligible to vote for the first, or perhaps just the second time. We met five young people who matched that description precisely at a place called the Latin American Coalition. That's an advocacy organization that helps immigrants. Now, not all of the people we met are immigrants, it's important to note that. Some just volunteer there.
Now, you would think that these young voters would be quite an attractive target for candidates in close races, especially because a lot of them haven't really kind of formed any political attachment or another, but these voters didn't necessarily see it that way. They all said that the outreach to the Latino community was for the most part minimal, at least as experienced by them. They said sure, there might be some ads in Spanish, but the voters said they really weren't hearing about the issues that were important to them right now, including immigration reform. For example, here's 20-year-old Mary Espinosa.
MARY ESPINOSA: I have a lot of friends who are undocumented and can't vote. My parents can't vote and so for me, using my ability to vote as a way of them - like, I'll ask my dad, hey dad, who do you think I should vote for? What do you - how do you feel about this? And we'll have discussions about it and then we usually agree, but that's my way of kind of letting my dad's voice count.
MARTIN: Let me just give you one more story, Audie, from another young Latino voter. He's 20 years old. His name is Armando Cruz Martinez. He told us about how immigration officials came to his house looking for somebody else early in the morning one day and took his father away.
ARMANDO CRUZ MARTINEZ: And they asked to come in and they came in and they found my dad in bed, sleeping. And they asked him, are you documented? He said, no, I'm not. And they just took him away and then that was last time that we saw him, until my mom decided she was going to move the whole family to his hometown in Mexico because she didn't want to be away from him. And then I ended up staying here to pursue my education and I haven't seen my family in a good almost four years now.
MARTIN: Audie, as you might imagine, Armando says that this has had a very powerful impact on his life if you're wondering why so many Latino voters prioritize immigration reform, this is one example. Many, many people said that they know someone in exactly this situation. And some people might find this surprising, but Armando says it is the key reason he's making sure that he is eligible to vote, that he is registered to vote and that he's going to vote.
CORNISH: And Michel, the backdrop to all of this of course, the new election laws in North Carolina. Among some of the provisions, it bars same-day voter registration. It cuts off a week of early voting and starting in 2016, new requirements for voter IDs. Some are calling this is the strictest in the nation. Did it actually come up in your conversations with these voters?
MARTIN: Very often. You know, there's a real gap between eligible voters and people who actually vote. Latinos make up 9 percent of the population but only about 2 percent are registered to vote. Some of the people we spoke to believe these changes, as you mentioned, will make this gap even larger, but other people say it's a combination of things.
For example, we talked to Diego Barahona. He is the editor of La Noticia, it's the oldest Spanish-language newspaper in North Carolina. He pointed out that in most of Latin America, voting is compulsory, but in the U.S. it is not. So he thinks that voters who might not like the candidates or who might not like what they stand for might actually prefer the option of not voting.
DIEGO BARAHONA: You don't have still immigration reform so many people's really disappointed. And as you know, you have new law - new voting law. So for them, they are - this election is almost - they don't think it's important because they don't believe in their candidates.
MARTIN: But Audie, I'm thinking that as the numbers of Latino voters increase, they will become a group that cannot be ignored.
CORNISH: Perhaps, but are you actually finding that? I mean, did you see local politicians in Charlotte paying attention to this emerging voting block?
MARTIN: We heard wildly different opinions about that. As you heard, a number of the voters said that they did not feel that the current crop of candidates has made any real outreach to them at all, in fact, that there's some polling data that suggests that only a third of Latino voters contacted in the state by various polling organizations said that they have been contacted by any candidate. But, I also spoke with the mayor of Charlotte, Dan Clodfelter. He's only been mayor for a couple of months but he's been in public life for some time now and when I mentioned that a number of people that we spoke to felt this way, he said that he wasn't surprised. But he says, that's going to change.
MAYOR DAN CLODFELTER: I think there's a lag time before people really fully realize the extent to which the immigrant population has come to the community and become invested in the community, involved in the community so there's a little delay in catching up, as it were.
MARTIN: Well, he told us that that's already changing, that there's a task for us, for example that's been created by the city on precisely this issue working to get immigrants involved in the life of the city.
Let me leave you with one more data point. Of the 10 states with the fastest growing Hispanic populations, eight are in the South - nine, if you include Maryland in that - so clearly, somebody's going to be paying attention to this voting group very soon.
CORNISH: Especially you, right? I understand you're headed back to Charlotte.
MARTIN: I am. I'll be there next Monday night, October 27. We are having a live conversation on voting rights at the McGlohon Theater - that's in Spirit Square - and I'd like to mention there will be a parallel bilingual Twitter chat on the same day, in English and Spanish. Use the hashtag #nprmichel.
CORNISH: And if you'd like to learn more about the event you can find more information at npr.org.
Michel, thanks so much.
MARTIN: Thank you, Audie.
CORNISH: And here's a little more about the series of conversations Michel Martin is having around the country. Next Monday's event in Charlotte? It's just the latest. Michel is hosting live discussions in partnership with member stations and NPR Presents, talking about important topics in the news and in culture. As she likes to say, we're taking the studio to the story. Last month she hosted a conversation on diversity on Broadway with a group of acclaimed playwrights, including Lydia Diamond.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
LYDIA DIAMOND: If I'm going to a play, I want to see myself on the stage and it's not rocket science that the more you put people who look like other people on stage, the more they will come to the theater.
CORNISH: And that's just a taste. Upcoming topics are on women in leadership, education and football. We'll be hearing more from Michel on MORNING EDITION and here on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.
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