(L to R) Lorena Ramirez, of Arlington, Virginia, holds up an American flag as she cheers with her friend Lilia Beiec during a rally in support of immigration reform on October 8, 2013 in Washington, D.C.
Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty

How the Latino vote becomes a movement for change

The Latino community and the power of our vote is rightly receiving much attention in this election cycle, but not always for the right reasons.

We have established ourselves as a political force – strong enough to have influenced the outcomes of key Senate races in 2010 and the presidential race in 2012 – and we will continue growing in strength and size for years to come.

Latinos also realize it is up to us to vote to protect our families and our communities. Only by building our segment of the electorate can we change the bad politics practiced by both major parties that now stands in the way of needed policy changes on immigration reform and other issues. Our strength comes from voting for ourselves and not for politicians or political parties.

Unfortunately, there are now conflicting opinions that wrongly tie the Latino vote and the future of the community to the ups and downs of a particular political party, even suggesting we need to go to divorce court after getting beaten up and taken for granted by the party.

Those assertions disregard the independence and intelligence of Latino voters and undermine the political and policy gains that have been forced in recent history by the strength of Latinos. Though we have more to accomplish, we already have proven the power of our influence.

For example, as a gubernatorial candidate four years ago, California Governor Jerry Brown had a “Latino” problem. His campaign seemed indifferent to the state’s major bloc of Latino voters until his Republican opponent, Meg Whitman, started making gains. Now, Governor Brown has a record of signing laws that have set the national standard for pragmatic, well-reasoned policies regarding immigrants, including the Trust Act, which calls for law enforcement to hold immigrants for federal officials only under limited, serious circumstances; allowing undocumented immigrants the right to practice law; and allowing undocumented immigrants to qualify for driver’s licenses.

Two decades after California voters backed Proposition 187 – thrown out of court because of its unconstitutional proposal to deny public services to undocumented residents – Governor Brown gets it. Noting the growing political force of Latinos up and down the state, the governor said in June: “That is the tide that is turning the political feelings and philosophy of state government.”

Let’s not forget that Brown was elected in 2010, when anti-immigrant legislation was trending across conservative-led states, including Arizona, Georgia and Alabama. Latino advocates showed the negative economic effects of the states’ racial profiling policies, and neutered the laws in the courts. The Latino community also flexed its political muscle.

After marching in cities across the U.S. in 2006 against an anti-immigrant measure passed by the House, Latinos marched to the polls in 2010. This was not a presidential election year, but exceedingly important to the Latino community to beat back the harsh demonization of immigrants by candidates in several states. The Latino vote won the day in key races in Nevada, Colorado and California.

Two years later, we know what happened. Latinos soundly rejected the “self-deportation” campaign talk of Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney. On election night, even before the polls closed on the West Coast, GOP leaders conceded the power of the Latino vote and the mandate to repair the broken immigration system that has unnecessarily separated so many families. A strong bipartisan majority of the Senate approved a commonsense approach to immigration reform but the House endorsed the anti-immigrant dogma of conservatives and even tried to roll back current policies now in place for DREAMers.

Behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, Democrats and Republicans offer full-throated endorsements for immigration reform because “it’s the right thing to do.” Surely, a strong majority of voters have thought so for years, according to public polls.

However, the same politicians became paralyzed by cheap political shots that they fired at each other through the hearts of the Latino community. Congress did not enact immigration reform and the President delayed using executive authority to grant relief from unnecessary deportations because of raw political fears.

Yes, it is true that members of one party draw more Latino voter support than another, for a good reason: Latinos vote for those who publicly champion our issues like immigration reform, and reject those who insult is, ignore us, or take us for granted.

But, we need to vote by greater numbers to change the politics.

With the 2014 mid-term election less than a month away, Latinos are mobilizing to turn out even more voters this year compared to 2010. We know that our vote forced immigration to the top of the policy agenda two years ago, and we have to vote in November to make sure the legislation reaches the finish line in the next Congress.

We have learned from past civil rights battles, including the most recent struggles of the LGBT community for fairness and justice. We are growing our vote and organizing ourselves to change the politics by registering voters and making sure that our families, friends and supporters vote for us.

When we succeed, Latinos will not be seen as a tool to be used by political parties and politicians, but as a movement that changes the politics because we vote for ourselves and not for them.

Maria Teresa Kumar is the founding President and CEO of Voto Latino and a contributor with MSNBC.

Immigration Policy, Immigration Reform, Latino Voters and Latinos

How the Latino vote becomes a movement for change