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In Colorado’s close races, the Hispanic vote is key

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voz y votoNote: America’s Voice’s Maribel Hastings, who wrote this post, is in Colorado covering the GOP caucus. She’ll be filing regular reports on the campaign as part of our “Voz Y Voto 2012” series.

DENVER-They may be undocumented, naturalized, or first- second- or third-generation citizens, but if one thing unites many Hispanics in Colorado it’s their discontent with the anti-immigrant rhetoric coming out of the Republican primary.

To David Ramírez, a fourth-generation Hispanic in Colorado, the tone and proposals of the Republican candidates on immigration are “insensitive, insincere and insulting.” And they’re a decisive factor in how he plans to vote. “The whole issue is very important to all Hispanics. It doesn’t matter if you’re Mexican, Mexican-American, South American, if you were naturalized or fourth-generation. We’re all part of the same history and this issue affects us all,” he said. He called Mitt Romney’s “self-deportation” idea “bizarre.”

“It doesn’t make any sense. Proposing that ignores the contribution that millions of immigrants make to our economy, and is dismissive of the Latino vote,” he added.

The tone and policies on immigration can be so important that they’ve led some Hispanic Republicans to switch parties.

Olivia Mendoza, executive director of the Colorado Latino Leadership Advocacy and Research Organization (CLLARO), and her family were legalized with the amnesty signed by Republican President Ronald Reagan in 1986. Her parents remained loyal Republicans “until 2008, when they were watching Univisión and John McCain came out talking about his opposition to immigration reform, changing his position completely.”

“For Latinos, an insult is a very personal thing,” Mendoza declared.

Along with the economy and jobs, immigration is one of the most important issues to Colorado’s Latino voters. In 2008, Latinos in Colorado gave 61% of their support to Barack Obama, swinging the state to the Democratic column after victories there by George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004.

Unlike 2008, Romney lost the Republican caucuses in Colorado on Tuesday, but he remains in the lead in the battle for the Republican nomination and the opportunity to face Obama in November.

Once again, Colorado is looking like one of the key swing states where the Latino vote might make the difference in a tight race.

President Obama is counting on the support of Latino voters in Colorado. Hispanics represent 21% of the state’s population, and 13% of its eligible voters; a plurality are registered Democrats.

The question is whether, in November, they’ll show up at the polls in sufficient numbers to guarantee that Colorado remains a blue state.

The economy and immigration, in that order, are the central issues for Latino voters in Colorado, according to Robert Preuhs, an adjunct professor of political science at Metropolitan State College in Denver.

Immigration is a mobilizing issue for the community, as demonstrated by the statewide debate over the bill SB 126, known as Colorado ASSET, which would allow undocumented students to pay the same tuition rates as legal Colorado residents, Preuhs explained. They were also motivated by the campaign to pressure the only Latino Republican in the state House of Representatives, Robert Ramírez, to reconsider his opposition to the bill.

Dominating the Republican debate over immigration in Colorado, meanwhile, have been anti-immigrant figures like Tom Tancredo, the former congressman who ran for governor in 2010, but lost to Democrat and DREAM Act supporter, John Hickenlooper. That same year, another DREAM Act supporter, Senator Michael Bennet, won re-election by a mere 15,000 votes against Republican Ken Buck. Bennet got 81% of the Latino vote.

Preuhs recognizes that there’s frustration among Latino voters in Colorado over “the lack of movement at the national level” on immigration reform, but at the same time, he indicates that the Republican message doesn’t appeal to them.

If Romney sticks to his position on “self-deportation” and vetoing the DREAM Act, “he loses a lot of the Latino vote,” Preuhs said.

That said, he warned that among the state’s electorate as a whole, “some of these positions are popular among non-Latino voters, so I think you still have a relatively tight race in a competitive state here in Colorado.”

The organization Mi Familia Vota, which promotes voter participation and registration, recognizes that in this electoral cycle they will face a number of obstacles to mobilizing voters.

One of these obstacles was presented by Secretary of State Scott Gessler, who, citing concerns about voter fraud, created the category of “inactive voter,” encompassing anyone who voted, for example, in 2008 but not 2010. The issue is currently being challenged in court and is considered an attempt at voter suppression, particularly of minority voters like Hispanics, explained Grace López Ramírez, state director of Mi Familia Vota.

Another obstacle is the dissatisfaction among certain Latino voters over the failure to pass immigration reform and the effects of the current policy of deportations.

“It’s hard to mobilize voters when your friends or your family members are in deportation proceedings,” said Julie Gonzáles of the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, although she added that the anti-immigrant rhetoric Republicans are spouting might be a motivating factor.

Mendoza said that “when you do your duty to someone, people vote.” She admitted that there’s a great deal of disillusionment over the lack of reform, but that other factors seem to be mobilizing Latino voters: “the economy is getting better, people have found jobs, and the revision of deportation policy has brought hope to a lot of people.”

In a Mexican market in Denver, we spoke with undocumented women who’d lived in the United States for 22 years, 14 years and 12 years, respectively. They, too, gave Obama the benefits of the doubt, and hoped that those who were able to vote would give him a second chance.

“If immigration reform had been solely in Obama’s hands, it would have happened already. It’s a process. It’s like a house that’s been destroyed, you can’t rebuild it in a day,” one said.

“Everybody needs to be patient,” another concluded.