WASHINGTON — Failing to overhaul the nation's immigration system, currently a backburner issue for Congress and President Barack Obama, could play a pivotal role in key mid-term election races in November, according to a new study on Latino voting patterns.
The report by America's Voice, which supports comprehensive new immigration policies, says that revising the laws is the defining issue for Latino voters. The report says that progress — or the lack thereof — in revamping immigration laws and regulations could affect as many as 40 congressional races in areas with sizeable Latino populations, including the re-election bids of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., just two years ago his party's presidential candidate.
"Immigration reform is a litmus test in the Latino community," Eliseo Medina, the president of the Service Employees International Union, said during a conference call about the study. "To us, this is a policy issue, but it is also an issue about respect."
The study says that Obama and Democrats who campaigned in 2008 on the promise of revamping immigration laws benefitted from a 54 percent growth in registered Latino voters between 2000 and 2008.
Never miss a local story.
Some 10 million Latinos voted in the 2008 presidential election. Obama received 75 percent of the Latino vote while McCain received 25 percent.
Since the election, several Latino organizations and leaders have expressed frustration with Obama and congressional Democrats for not aggressively pushing a comprehensive immigration bill. The complaints grew louder after Obama barely mentioned immigration in his State of the Union address last month.
Latino leaders and groups are similarly frustrated with Republicans. They feel that the GOP is promoting and campaigning on an anti-immigration agenda in hopes of attracting so-called "tea party" voters who prefer stricter policing of the U.S. border to a comprehensive policy, which they consider to be amnesty for illegal immigrants already in the country.
"The president did make a promise to the Latino community, and it has not been forgotten," said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive officer of the National Council of La Raza, a leading Hispanic lobby. "We're also looking to Congress — Democrats and Republicans — particularly Republicans, who can't just continue to say 'no' . . . we'll hold all these elected officials accountable."
Increases in Latino population and voter registration in several key states could make Latinos players in this year's mid-term elections, according to the study. The report points to 12 states where registered Latino voters account for between 3.2 and 32 percent of the electorate.
The competitive races include Arizona, where McCain is facing his first serious primary challenge from former Republican Rep. J.D. Hayworth and two other anti-illegal immigration candidates: Chris Simcox, a founder of the Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, and Jim Deakin, a businessman and Navy veteran.
Obama captured the Latino vote in Arizona by 56 to 41 percent. Latinos make up 14.8 percent of the state's voting population.
The study also singles out Nevada, where a politically vulnerable Reid has a crowded field of Republicans lining up to run against him. Latinos, who make up 12.8 percent of Nevada's registered voters "will play an important role in the Senate campaign and could be a decisive factor in whether the Senate majority leader returns for his fifth term," the study said.
However, comprehensive immigration advocates warn that the Latino community's vote isn't automatic and must be earned.
"If anybody thinks that somehow not acting is going to work to the advantage of depressing turnout . . . . I think anybody who believes they have a lock on this community because they don't have anywhere to go is also mistaken," Medina said. "This is a constituency that's highly motivated and will participate."
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
For more McClatchy politics coverage visit Planet Washington