The Washington Post

Advocates seek to use census data to secure clout for Hispanics

Juanita Olivarez carries her niece after hanging clothes on the line outside her home at colonia El Jay, north of Alamo, Texas. Olivarez said she was counted during the U.S. census, but her children were not. (DELCIA LOPEZ/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)

For Anna Alicia Romero and other Hispanic activists, the release of final census numbers this week signaled the official start of an audacious new campaign: securing as many as 10 new Hispanic congressional districts across the country.

Romero’s work began two years ago, when she traveled to Texas’s “colonias” to urge reluctant residents of the impoverished border settlements to fill out their census forms. Now, with figures showing that more than half the nation’s growth was driven by Hispanics, activists are poised to convert those numbers into political muscle.

The question is whether they will come close to their goal. Political boundaries will be redrawn in many cases by Republican-controlled statehouses that might be reluctant to maximize voting power for a Democratic-leaning ethnic group. And the fact that many Latinos are not citizens or do not regularly vote also could pose a challenge.

Still, activists say they are determined to take full advantage of this rare opportunity to increase their political clout, and will turn to the Justice Department if necessary to ensure they get their fair share.

“We know as the Latino community that power is not given away. Power is taken,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, a nonpartisan advocacy group. “We know that the [population] increases are largely due to our community’s growth. And we intend to translate that to opportunities for our community to have more fair representation in this country.”

The fight is already playing out here in Texas, where the overall population surged so dramatically that the state will gain four congressional seats. Republican lawmakers drawing the new map must contend with the numbers: Nearly two-thirds of the state’s growth is attributable to Latinos. Hispanic leaders want at least two, and as many as all four, of the new districts to be drawn so that the majority of the population will be Hispanics.

The goal is not only to elect more Hispanics to Congress, but also to ensure that anyone running for office will be forced to listen to Hispanic voters and protect their interests. About 30 districts currently show majority-Hispanic populations, not all of which elected Hispanics to Congress.

Similar pushes for Hispanic districts are underway in several states, including New York, which grew by just 2 percent but saw its Latino population surge 19 percent; California, where advocates are pushing for the creation of as many as three Hispanic-majority seats; Arizona, where Hispanics have objected to recent efforts to curb illegal immigration; and Nevada, where activists are trying to create the state’s first Hispanic-majority district in Las Vegas.

The campaigns, which are being carried out by nonpartisan advocacy groups, come as 2010 Census numbers released Thursday confirmed that Hispanics fueled the country’s growth between 2000 and 2010.

Some of the jump in Hispanic numbers stems from work that began years ago among activists like Romero to reduce the historic undercount among Latinos, some of whom avoid government counters, while others ignore the mailed forms or simply can’t be found.

Romero traveled from her home here in San Antonio over and over again to the dusty colonias, where hundreds of thousands of people live in makeshift homes and trailers, many without running water or paved streets.

Fill out the forms, Romero urged, and it will help bring schools, roads and other government services. But “in the back of my mind, always, was representation,” Romero said.

The number of Hispanics in the census doubled in many states not known for large Latino populations, including Georgia, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama. And for the first time since the 1960s, the number of Hispanic children born in the United States outnumbered the number of Hispanics entering the country as immigrants.

The uptick has coincided with a backlash against illegal immigration, captured most dramatically in Arizona, which passed a bill last year to identify illegal border-crossers. Hispanic leaders say that fueled their desire for Latinos to be seen as central players rather than a political football, wooed or demonized depending on the prevailing winds.

The groups will reach 10 new Hispanic-majority House districts only if they can get several states to slice and dice the population figures to maximize Latino numbers. Some will be created simply by virtue of the numbers, leaving mapmakers no choice but to create new Hispanic-majority districts.

The groups will probably have to fight for some of the new districts under the Voting Rights Act, which is enforced by the Justice Department and helps minority communities consolidate their strength through redistricting.

To create a new Hispanic district under the Voting Rights Act, advocates must prove that there are enough voting citizens to make a difference in an election, among other standards.

“Any percentage that you’re doing on Hispanic gets cut almost in half when you look at citizenship status,” said Kimball Brace, president of Election Data Services and a redistricting expert.

There is also a political reality: Most Latinos are Democrats, and many of the state legislatures that will draw the maps in key states are controlled by Republicans. Even states where Democrats are in charge might pose a challenge because lawmakers sometimes split up Hispanic blocs to bolster black and white incumbents.

“I think it will be more difficult to carve out non-Latino districts in some of these places,” said Danny Vargas, former national chairman of the Republican National Hispanic Assembly. “Those are the ones that are going to look more serpentine.”

Romero’s group, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, is now preparing legal strategies in the likely scenario that many of the maps will have to be sorted out in court.

Activists are also returning to the communities they visited before the census.This time, they are training teachers, business owners, janitors and others to speak up at public hearings to explain why their communities should be kept together.

They are encouraging people to arrive with their own redistricting plans, showing where Hispanics live — even if they simply buy a drug store map and make an outline in Magic Marker.

Staff writer Dan Keating contributed to this report.

Sandhya Somashekhar is the social change reporter for the Washington Post.


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