North Carolina hosts the country's second-fastest growing Latino population, so it's not surprising that our state has also hosted heated debates about immigration. And yet, the anti-immigrant venom that recently surfaced in North Carolina politics surprised even veterans of the struggle to secure the Latino community's standing in our state. Andrea Bazan-Manson, executive director of El Pueblo, a Raleigh-based Latino advocacy group founded in 1994, admits that she was one of those who was caught off guard. During El Pueblo's early years, "it was like this honeymoon period," she recalls. "Everyone talked about our great food and rich culture, and then things kind of turned around. The election was so contentious that some [candidates] chose to pick on people that are the easiest targets." Those people are immigrants, and the anti-immigrant barrage started early and lasted throughout the campaign period. Vernon Robinson, a Winston-Salem Republican who ran for Congress, launched the first salvo in an incendiary radio ad: "The aliens are here, but they didn't come in a spaceship. They came across our unguarded Mexican border by the millions--illegally. They've filled our criminal courtrooms and invaded our schools. They sponge off the American taxpayer by clogging our welfare lines and our hospital emergency rooms."
Robinson lost in the primaries, but some GOP candidates who won nominations continued to echo his theme. In the Oct. 15 gubernatorial debate, Republican candidate Patrick Ballantine said that illegal immigrants are "draining our resources from emergency rooms and education systems." At the same time, the National Republican Senatorial Committee sponsored ads for Senate candidate Richard Burr that charged his Democratic opponent, Erskine Bowles, with helping immigrants obtain health care and education funding--which was defined as "more welfare for immigrants when our own people need help."
When she saw the Burr ad, Bazan-Manson says, she realized that it was once again going to be "open season on immigrants." But she was ready to point out that Latinos in North Carolina are, in fact, "our own people." Latinos have been here for generations, and now more than ever, they're ready to lay claim to the right to vote.
Of course, obstacles still abounded. In Alamance County, Sheriff Terry Johnson announced that he suspected Latino voter fraud and took the extraordinary step of submitting Hispanic-sounding names that appeared on voter rolls to the federal government's Department of Homeland Security. It seemed liked a bald-faced attempt to scare Latino voters away from the polls, and, Bazan-Manson says, it wasn't a new experience. "It's a message that some people have told me to my face: 'It's OK if you're here and you work in our restaurants, but just don't get involved in politics.'"
In response, El Pueblo got more involved than ever. During the past year, the organization has made getting out the Latino vote one of its top priorities, while still maintaining its other programs. El Pueblo's 18 staff members and hundreds of volunteers keep working to obtain education, health care, housing and workers' rights for Latinos in North Carolina. They still coordinate the annual Fiesta del Pueblo, a celebration of Latino culture that drew more that 60,000 visitors in September. But during the last few months, the organization poured its heart and soul into a political participation campaign called "El Pueblo Votes!"
The campaign included educational mailings, public service announcements on Spanish radio and TV stations, and a phone bank that targeted potential Latino voters. On election day, El Pueblo dispatched most of its staff to do election monitoring. In Alamance County, El Pueblo volunteers joined Department of Justice personnel in monitoring poll sites.
According to the organization, El Pueblo set out to register 500 new Latino voters, but by the Oct. 8 close of the registration period it had registered 1,400. At the same time, the organization has dispatched lobbyists to Raleigh and Washington to weigh in on the group's legislative goals. Along the way, El Pueblo has built productive relationships with both Republicans and Democrats.
Axel Lluch, director of Gov. Mike Easley's Office of Hispanic/Latino Affairs, says that El Pueblo has proven effective because the organization has reached out to so many audiences--not just to the state's Latino population. "Their biggest achievement is raising awareness about Latinos in all of North Carolina. They are well-respected by our state government, as well as by the Latino community and the non-Latino communities." In addition, Lluch says, El Pueblo's broad-based approach to advocacy has proved to be a useful model for smaller, locally focused Latino support groups that have sprung up from Murphy to Manteo. "El Pueblo led the way, statewide," he says.
That's all well and good, Bazan-Manson says, but she's certain that the Latino community still has much work to do on the political front. "Only through the right to vote and exercising that right are we going to be part of the discussion. You know, we can lobby all we want and draw a big festival, but I also want us to be at that table, providing ideas and input."