McALLEN, Oct. 17 – At the end of a Get Out the Vote rally attended by more than 300 people, Equal Voice for America’s Families acknowledged it has a tough task on its hands this election season.
The group is trying to increase voter turnout by ten percent in ten targeted precincts across the Rio Grande Valley that have relatively high voter registration but historically low voter turnout.
If the group succeeds, the philanthropic groups that have invested more than $100,000 in this year’s GOTV project, the Open Society and the Marguerite Casey Foundation, will likely invest a lot more for a much bigger operation in 2012.
What is making things tough, the group’s leaders acknowledge, is that the Obama Administration has thus failed to deliver on its promise to pass comprehensive immigration reform. In house meetings across the Valley, families belonging to the ten non-profits that make up the Equal Voice network in the region listed immigration reform as their No. 1 agenda item.
“There was a lot more energy in the community two years ago. This time round, we have a much tougher job, but I think we can do it,” said Martha Sanchez, a community organizer with La Unión del Pueblo Entero in Alton.
“It has been tough because some people are disillusioned. We have not had the changes we expected two years ago. But, changes are very slow in the political system. Things do not happen overnight. This time around, we are having to use a lot more energy, a lot more argument, in order to persuade people to vote.”
Sanchez acknowledged that immigration reform and, more specifically, stopping anything similar to Arizona’s SB 1070 from being passed in Texas, is the number one agenda item for Equal Voice. She said this was made clear in town hall meetings and house meetings.
“Clearly, immigration reform is the number one issue. Our community needs it. It was the issue we had most questions on. People are very concerned about the Arizona bill being passed in Texas or one similar,” she said.
The strength of opposition to SB 1070 could be seen in the number of banners and signs being waved in the audience at the GOTV event, which was held Saturday at the McAllen Convention Center.
Under SB 1070, if an undocumented immigrant is identified by law enforcement in Arizona, he or she can be prosecuted and deported. The bill makes failure to carry immigration documents a misdemeanor. It also gives the police broad powers to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally.
Rodolfo Garcia, a community organizer for LUPE who lives in McAllen, said the thought of SB 1070 being passed by state lawmakers during the 82nd legislative session in Austin next year is causing nightmares for immigrants.
“What is going on in Arizona and other states around the nation makes us a target. Life is becoming very rough. And it is not just a question that they might pass such a bill in Austin. They are already working on it. Gov. Perry has given 100 percent support to the Arizona governor,” Garcia said.
“They talk about the security of the country. We have a whole community by the millions not secure, unprotected; afraid of what the police or Border Security might do. Just what is Gov. Perry trying to do in bringing 100,000 National Guard to the border? Psyche us out?”
Another reason it might be tough to hit GOTV targets is the state of the economy. Unemployment has hit double digit figures in the Valley, with the McAllen MSA recording the highest jobless percentage in the state.
Sanchez said residents may be disillusioned but that is all the more reason for Equal Voice to redouble its efforts.
“When people are low, this is the time to work hardest. As Cesar Chavez taught us, Sí, Se Puede. We must remind people, Yes We Can. Our spirit is strong. We must work a little harder but we will get there in the end,” she said.
Sanchez said that with hindsight, the Equal Voice group might have delivered a slightly different message in 2008, when it exceeded its GOTV goals.
“We perhaps should have warned people not to expect changes quickly. Major changes do not happen overnight. This system has been in place a long time and it is not in our favor. For it to change, it is going to take time,” Sanchez said.
“This year, we are changing our message. Our message now is that we have to establish a culture of voting in the Valley because changes are going to be gradual. We have to establish a culture of voting for Latino voters, not just in the Valley but across the state and the nation.”
Eva Soto, a community organizer with Project ARISE in Edinburg, said it is not coincidence that the Valley has a low voter turnout compared to the rest of the state and a much higher rate of poverty. “They go hand in hand. If our voice is not heard, we do not count. Our voice will only be heard if we vote in much greater numbers,” Soto said.
Project ARISE and Proyecto Azteca have teamed up to increase turnout in two precincts, 5 and 122, in Las Milpas. The two precincts have about 9,000 registered voters who have no history of voting. “We will be back out on the streets on Monday, trying to reach those people who were not home last time we called. We will also be offering transportation in order to get people to the polls,” Soto said.
As part of its long term strategy for “creating a culture of voting” among low-income colonia families, Equal Voice is going to target young people. “We need to do a better job of educating them on the issues, engaging them in our events,” Sanchez said.
Equal Voice leaders were pleased with how Saturday’s GOTV rally in McAllen went. As well as attracting a lot of families, many candidates on the November ballot were present to listen to the group’s agenda.
“State Representatives Veronica Gonzales and Armando Martinez and state Rep.-elect Sergio Muñoz all spoke and all said they back our agenda. We know we have three allies we can count on in Austin,” Sanchez said.
In addition, there was great applause when a representative for gubernatorial candidate Bill White said that if elected governor, White would veto any SB 1070-type legislation.
“It was very important the candidates listened to the issues our members have listed. Some of them need educating,” Sanchez added.