By Krissah Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 22, 2010; 10:16 PM
Earlier this month, a group of civil rights lawyers gathered at a hotel in San Antonio to discuss their primary focus for the next year: the mundane but crucial issue of political redistricting.
Anticipating a big uptick in the number of Hispanics in the United States - a view confirmed by new census figures released Tuesday - they set a goal of eking out every bit of political clout they could for the nation's fastest-growing minority group.
"The opportunity to create districts in which Latinos can elect candidates of their choice is much greater than ever before," said Cesar Perales, president and general counsel of LatinoJustice PRLDEF in New York, who was part of the San Antonio meeting.
Many of the states that stand to gain seats in Congress and electoral votes in presidential elections are growing because of Hispanics.
According to census figures, growth in Texas, which will gain four seats, was driven by Hispanics, who accounted for 63 percent of the added population. Similarly, Florida will gain two seats, and Hispanics accounted for 51 percent of its growth. The Hispanic-heavy states of Arizona and Nevada will also gain seats.
In those same states, Republicans made significant political gains in the 2010 election and will control much of the redistricting process. It's likely that they won't be inclined to carve districts that favor Hispanics, who are a key part of the Democratic base.
Hispanic legal and civil rights groups said they will mount a campaign of community education and, if necessary, legal protest to ensure that congressional and local districts are drawn in ways that reflect Hispanic growth.
"Folks who have power don't give it up easily, and when you have a growing community like the Latino community, you are talking about creating new districts that give that population an opportunity to elect representatives of their choice to Congress," said Thomas Saenz, president of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
His group and others worked hard to encourage members of their community to complete census forms in order to be counted, and they see the redistricting process as an important part of the political maturation of Hispanics.
In addition to following local redistricting laws, many states that are adding seats will also have to abide by the Voting Rights Act, which requires states with a history of racial discrimination to draw their districts in a way that does not put minority populations at a disadvantage.
In Texas, for example, Republicans will probably be able to create two districts that will lean heavily Republican. But the state will probably be forced by the Voting Rights Act to create two majority-Hispanic districts, too. Those will probably lean Democratic, evening out whatever advantage Republicans may have been able to create.
In states that will lose seats, Hispanics could still stand to gain. The Hispanic population in Illinois grew by almost 90 percent even as the overall population remained relatively stagnant. Latino lawyers will be pushing to keep their representation strong even as the state's congressional delegation shrinks.
"Savvy politicians ought to be able to understand that in the not-too-distant future these are voters that are going to matter," said William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution. "I know there is a lot of cookie carving of districts, but one of those considerations ought to be that these folks are going to be a force in elections for a long time."
He expects the Hispanic population's growth to begin to have a greater impact by the 2012 and 2014 election cycles.
Hispanic advocacy groups, which have faced what they see as crushing political losses in recent years, are eager to make inroads. Efforts to lobby Congress to overhaul immigration law, which has been a primary focus of Latino civil rights leaders, have failed repeatedly. Most recently, the Senate rejected legislation that would have made it possible for children brought to this country illegally to become citizens after meeting certain standards, including attending college or joining the military.
"We have a very strong sense within the Latino community that they have been unfairly targeted [and] that they are victims of discrimination and ill treatment," Perales said. "They have to do something to ensure that their voices are heard in the public debate, and that means that they have got to be involved in politics."
Clarissa Martinez De Castro, who oversees the National Council of La Raza's national programs, said she is worried about misperceptions of the community as the redistricting battle tees up.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) released a statement Tuesday that blamed illegal immigrants for the loss of a congressional seat in his state. "Louisiana stands to lose clout in Congress, while states that welcome illegal immigrants stand to unfairly benefit from artificially inflated population totals," Vitter said.
The census counts all residents, regardless of immigration status, but Martinez De Castro said that the majority of Hispanics are in the country legally and that among the Latino population younger than 18, more than 90 percent are citizens.
"The ripple effect of the political influence of Latinos is something we will continue to see in more states," she said.