PHOENIX — Eighteen people are waiting and watching TV in the lobby of Immigrants Without Borders, an advocacy group that helps with residency and citizenship applications, when Elias Bermudez walks in.
Speaking Spanish, Bermudez, the group’s founder and director, says he’s looking for registered voters to sign a petition for an opponent of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. But he also wants those in the lobby to know this: Together with Hispanics around Arizona, they have political power.
“The most positive thing we can do is make sure everybody who is a U.S. citizen is registered to vote and everybody who is registered to vote comes out to vote,” Bermudez says.
“Even if you’re not this country legally, there are many things you can do in November,” he says. “You can adopt a citizen, a friend or someone you work with and make sure they vote in the election.”
Activists supporting the rights of illegal immigrants have lost big in the past two elections when Arizona voters decided measures to take away in-state tuition, some social services benefits and the right to sue for punitive damages.
During the past two years, Immigrants Without Borders and other groups have urged supporters to march for immigrants’ rights. As November approaches, however, Bermudez and others are moving to a strategy that speaks to a slogan chanted during those demonstrations: Today we march; tomorrow we vote.
“There isn’t going to be any demonstrations. The voter registration drives are going on as we speak,” said Daniel Ortega, a lawyer and activist for the Mexican American Legal Defense Fund.
Ortega’s group is holding get-out-the-vote drives in areas of the Valley large Hispanics populations.
Coalition of Human Rights, an immigrant-rights group, is holding citizenship and voter registration fairs in Tucson. Spokeswoman Kat Rodriguez said many legal permanent residents in Arizona are eligible to complete the citizenship process and register to vote.
“That’s the best thing they can do because if they can become a citizen they’ll be able to participate in the political process, meaning they have their voice, and they can give their opinion, as well,” Rodriguez said.
Edward Williams, professor emeritus of political science and Latin American studies at University of Arizona, said immigrant-rights groups can accomplish more through voting than demonstrating.
“The potential votes are there,” Williams said.
As of 2006, Hispanics made up 29.2 percent of Arizona’s population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
So far, there are two proposed initiatives for the November election having to do illegal immigration:
— An employer sanctions initiative would punish illegal workers who use fake IDs to get work and require those who report an employer violation to write and sign their tips. Businesses that use E-Verify or I-9 forms to confirm the legal status of workers wouldn’t be punished if an employee is found to be illegal.
— Another measure would require all Arizona law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws and share information about illegal immigrants.
Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa, sponsor of several bills aimed at illegal immigration, said he doesn’t think get-out-the-vote efforts by immigrant-rights groups will have any short-term impact.
“If you look at history, we know that voters want illegal immigration to stop,” Pearce said.
But Rep. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, said he thinks there can be a significant change. He points to a recent increase in Democratic lawmakers. Democrats, he said, are often more sensitive to immigrants’ rights.
“I think voters are getting not so much tired of this issue, but they’re focusing on more critical issues facing them: the economy, the war in Iraq,” Gallardo said.
Paul Lewis, a professor of political science at Arizona State University, said voter turnout could help immigrant-rights groups in November, but he said the main issue working against them is public perception.
“What they have do is to change the caricature of illegal immigrants as a threat to the economy, to people’s jobs, and crime,” Lewis said.
The UA’s Williams said immigrant-rights groups face a daunting challenge.
“Truth of the matter is, I don’t see any significant change even after the elections,” Williams said. “If the economy gets markedly better then maybe we would see a softening of the mood, but that’s not going to happen for a while.”