President Obama's decision to grant temporary legal status to as many as 800,000 young illegal immigrants was met with praise from Hispanic advocacy and civil rights organizations on Friday. The new rule "gives Latinos an added reason not only to support the president but to actually turn out and vote," said Brent Wilkes, the national executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens. Obama's campaign must be hoping that this move will encourage Latinos--who have the lowest voter registration numbers of any major ethnic group in the United States, despite their growing demographic--to register and show up at the voting booth.
The president enjoys a big lead over Mitt Romney among Latinos, but he faces two hurdles in translating that sentiment into electoral turnout. One, registered voters must be enthusiastic enough to actually show up on Election Day, especially in swing states, and two, new Latino voters--people who just became citizens or citizens who recently turned 18--must be registered to vote.
The challenges of the latter are particularly apparent in the battleground state of Florida, where a whopping 638,000 Latinos are eligible to vote but are unregistered, according to a recent report by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress. That's several times the number of votes by which Obama beat John McCain in the state four years ago. It could be enough to sway the presidential election--but only if you can convince Latinos to register.
Nelly Medina, a 62-year-old Miami resident who canvasses new voters as a volunteer for the National Council of La Raza, says that hasn't been easy.
"The people don't want to vote," she says in Spanish. "There's a lot of apathy. The two candidates that there are, they don't like either of them … [politicians] don't come through on their promises."
Medina has helped 1,000 new voters register over the past few months, but for every person who wants to vote, there's a handful who say they're not interested.
And get-out-the-vote leaders say their groups are more underfunded than in election years past, meaning there are fewer people like Medina trying to convince people to vote in the first place.
Clarissa Martinez, La Raza's director of civic engagement, said the group has had to halve its goal of registering 180,000 new Latino voters nation-wide. In Florida, the group's efforts were slowed considerably by a new law that said registration forms had to be turned in within 48 hours of being completed. (At least one registration group dropped its efforts entirely because of the law, though a judge enjoined it several months later.) Ben Monterrosa, the director of Mi Familia Vota, said that his group has only reached 30 percent of its voter registration goal in Florida, though it is doing better in Nevada and some other states. "The goals that we have need to be reduced because obviously without having the resources we need we aren't going to be able to accomplish the goals," Monterrosa said.