VOTER VOICES: Nebraska Hispanics focused on economy, not immigration

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July 5, 2012 - 7:00pm

Editor's note: The need to get Hispanic voters engaged in state and local politics dominated the concerns of the latest roundtable discussion organized by NET News as part of its "Campaign Connection 2012: Voter Voices" project. The conversation underscored the difference between messages put out by political campaigns to attract Latino voters and what the community is actually talking about.

In June, the USA Today/Gallup Poll showed immigration was not the highest priority issue for Hispanic voters in America this election year. Gallup asked Hispanic registered voters to rank the importance of six national policy issues.

NET News

Carlos Barcenas, Grand Island, Neb., talks about the link between education and immigration policy in this "Campaign Connection 2012: Voter Voices" video.

NET News

Maria Flores, Grand Island, Neb., urges candidates to address bullying in a "Campaign Connection 2012: Voter Voices" video.

"Hispanic registered voters put health care and all economic issues before immigration, which 12 percent name as their most important issue," Gallup concluded. In contrast, nearly 20 percent of Hispanic voters felt health care and unemployment were the most important issues.

On June 19, six Latino voters gathered at the Edith Abbott Memorial Library in Grand Island, Neb. to discuss what issues they felt were important for candidates to address this election year. They were taking part in one of a series of Voter Voices roundtable discussions organized by NET News and libraries around the state.

The wide-ranging discussion was led by participants, and they barely touched on immigration, border control, or the benefits or disadvantages of supplying social services and tuition support to the children of immigrants.

Everyone at the table agreed with Carlos Barcenas when he said, "There is no such thing as a unified block of Hispanic voters. If you are looking at it from the point of view of, what are the important issues of the Latino - well, they are the same issues as are they are for the Anglo or the African (American)."

Barcenas, 31, was born in Mexico and moved in Grand Island in 1994 with his parents when they established a Christian ministry program for Spanish-speaking residents. He serves as executive director of the Multicultural Coalition of Grand Island.

"Politically, what is important to me comes down to what's in my community and my personal set of beliefs," he said.

The greatest concern for Barcenas and others at the discussion was getting their Latino neighbors to vote in the coming election.

"We have to educate our people about issues," said Odalys Perez, a 47-year-old who fled Cuba as a political refugee 17 years ago. Today, she's an American citizen and a mental health counselor in private practice.

Beyond voting, she believes American Hispanics must make more of an effort to take part in civic activities and local government.

"I always tell people not to just learn the language. Learn how to navigate the United States' system," Perez said. "This is a very complicated system for us. We need to educate our Latino population and our immigrant population, in general."


NET News

Odalys Perez and Javier Lopez take part in the NET News Voter Voices discussion.

Photo by NET News

NET News producer Mike Tobias listens as Carlos Barcenas and Maria Flores share opinions.

Photo by NET News


Perez said it can be difficult for working-class citizens of any background to find the time and energy to pay attention to current events.

"They come here to work like horses and they work extremely hard. They go home, they cook and they go to bed," she said. "I'm not sure if you are very interested in what Obama is saying about anything" at the end of the day.

Recent data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed Hispanics in Nebraska are half as likely to register to vote, and to get out and cast a ballot in an election, as the rest of the state's population. Nationally, the Census numbers revealed Hispanic voter registration dropped sharply since the 2008 election (along with African-Americans). The Washington Post reported this was the first time in 40 years that the number dropped significantly; and this occurred as the U.S. Latino population increased sharply.

Maria Flores, a young mother and insurance agent-in-training, said outreach to Hispanic voters and the growing Sudanese population is an essential.

"There is not information for the minority community," Flores said. "They are not informed."

Barcenas agreed.

"We have a part of a large, disengaged Latino-Hispanic community. They are just not engaged."

He told the group that, in his opinion, a large part of the responsibility for educating the voter lies with the voters themselves, and that may mean expanding their English language skills.

"The non-English speaker will always have a harder time accessing that information. That's just a fact," Barcenas said.

While teaching citizenship classes at Central Community College, Maria Lopez finds that her immigrant students are often fascinated by how American democracy works.

"When we touch the topic of Congress and who is in the Congress, and that they make the federal laws that might affect us as immigrants, they ask so many questions," she said. " How can we change these people?' By voting and by getting informed is how they are going to do it themselves."

Seeing members of his own family deciding not to become informed frustrates David Gonzalez, 22, a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

"I know some of our family who have been naturalized can never make an educated decision because they don't know what goes on in Congress," he said. "They don't know the bureaucracy of it. It should be substantive conversation, but it's not."

Other Hispanics often ask Barcenas to give advice on how they should vote. He said he doesn't select which candidate he believes should win. Instead, he summarizes candidate positions on key issues so they can make an informed choice. He doesn't want to make such an important decision for these new American voters.

"If you don't know politics and you are not constantly paying attention and following it, you don't know what is going on," he said. "If you don't feel part of the community yet, language does make it a (barrier)."

If immigration was not at the top of the list, there were other issues that the likely voters had on their minds during the NET News "Voter Voices" discussion. When asked to pick one, each described an issue or concern that often was directly linked to their career or community interest.

Odalys Perez told the group "access to health care to minorities, and I would say for all Americans, is a problem here." She spoke both as a health care provider, paid in part through insurance companies, and as a customer. She and her husband "pay 780 dollars every month for health insurance."

David Gonzalez brought up "one of the big things on the block": He's worried middle-class families are struggling to pay for college tuition.

"And not just Latino parents," he said. "The middle class should get as much (public tuition assistance) as the lower-income tax bracket does."

Another student, high school senior Javier Lopez, raised concerns about integrity and accountability in government.

"Presidential candidates need to remember that we are the ones choosing them to lead us," Lopez said. "Their stand on situations has to mostly mirror what the public wants."

Most of the pressing election-year issues for this group came back to matters affecting their personal finances in one way or another.

Barcenas called it "the whole clich of the rich getting richer and the poor getting poorer."

"I think we are seeing it more and more, and the middle class struggling even more and more to stay afloat."

"The working poor, that's what we are," Perez added.

The range of issues reflected the top concerns listed in the June 25 Gallup Poll. According to the organization's analysis, "the current poll suggests immigration may not be the issue on which most Hispanics are focused. Rather, the economy - specifically, unemployment and economic growth - is of greatest concern to nearly four in 10 Hispanic voters, while another 21 percent are most concerned about health care."

Gallup went on to point out that since the issue rankings of Hispanic voters mirrored those of the U.S. population as a whole, it could create "an important opportunity for Romney and Obama to attract Hispanic support with the same economy-centric message that could benefit each nationally."



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