PI Original Matthew Blake Thursday May 17th, 2012, 5:06pm

Latino Leaders Meet In Chicago To Talk Voter Mobilization, Immigration Reform

NATO is not the only policy summit in Chicago this weekend – the three-day National Latino Congreso started today with local and national Latino leaders focused on voter mobilization, at a moment in Chicago when many Occupy protesters are focused on street marches, rallies, and sit-ins.

NATO is not the only policy summit in Chicago this weekend – the three-day National Latino Congreso started today with local and national Latino leaders focused on voter mobilization, at a moment in Chicago when many Occupy protesters are focused on street marches, rallies, and sit-ins.

“We need to make sure our voices are heard and the most powerful way to do that ... is at the voting booth,” said Lawrence Benito, executive director of the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR).

The focus on voting in some ways differs with immigration-focused Occupy protesters, despite similar policy positions. Occupy Chicago and the Chicago-based Occupy El Barrio focus on direct actions such as a protest today outside Obama campaign headquarters and a sit-in Tuesday at Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) court to protest immigrant detention and deportation.

“We can’t just be thought of terms in votes,” says Crystal Vance Guerra, of Occupy El Barrio. “It’s time to create what we do for ourselves in our neighborhoods.”

Speakers at a news conference today contrasted the NATO military alliance with the Congreso, where delegates will pass resolutions to shape the national Latino political agenda, and send those resolutions to Barack Obama and Mitt Romney’s presidential campaigns.

Speakers grappled with whether Latinos can really affect the presidential election. Latino voters preferred Obama to Republican presidential candidate John McCain 67 percent to 31 percent in 2008, but Obama has both ramped up deportation to record highs and not worked on a new comprehensive immigration policy with Congress.

The main alternative, though, is presumed Republican nominee Mitt Romney. Romney wants a policy of “self-deportation,” where undocumented immigrants leave America because of a lack of opportunity.

Chicago Ald. Danny Solis (25th) said Latinos should vote Obama, despite the alderman’s own reservations with the president’s deportation policy. “Our president deserves re-election,” Solis said at the conference. “The other option to me is not an option.”

Other speakers stressed state and local elections. Alonso Rivas, regional counsel for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF), said that most anti-immigrant laws – like the Arizona law before the Supreme Court – start at the state level.

Benito of ICIRR argued for supporting political candidates who back pending Illinois legislation that would effectively squelch a proposed ICE detention center in Crete.

Also, Benito addressed direct action versus voting by alluding to massive May Day immigrant rights marches in 2006 and 2007 that were largely organized in Chicago. The protests drew national attention to immigrant issues, but the U.S. Senate filibustered a comprehensive immigration policy bill in 2007.

“It wasn’t enough to get people on the streets,” Benito said. “We need to impact those people that have the power to press those buttons on the issues that we care about.”

Oscar Chacon, vice president of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, said that protests should be complementary of voting, especially following an Illinois primary where voter turnout hit record lows. “We are in a moment of searching for how to re-energize democracy in the United States,” Chacon said.

Substantive concerns of Latino Congreso delegates are, in fact, similar to members of the Occupy movement who are focused on immigrant issues: Both groups are fighting economic inequality and equal rights for all Americans, regardless of citizenship status.

“Eight years of horrible economic policies in the Bush administration were really hard on the Latino community,” said Hector Sanchez, executive director of the Labor Council for Latin America. “We have the highest level of wage debt and injuries for workers in the nation.”

“It’s been a long, hard ten years, of frustration” said Brent Wilkes, executive director of League of United American Citizens. “Before 9/11, there was a bipartisan consensus to have immigration reform – that consensus has been shattered.”

Image: AP

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