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Iowa Activist: "The Latino Vote Counts"

Monica Reyes, founder, Dream Iowa
Latinos at a "Dream Iowa" meeting in Des Moines

A Latino advocacy group is working hard to get voters out to their precinct caucuses on February 1st.  

They have ambitious goals for how many Latinos will participate.  An immigration expert says their targets are realistic.  

Close to a hundred Latinos gathered on a recent Sunday at Grandview University in Des Moines.   Part of the agenda was to learn how the Iowa caucuses work.    

Christian Ucles walks them through a typical Democratic caucus, where supporters of a certain candidate gather together in a group in a corner of the room.     

“You're going to physically get up and you're going to go to your corner and vote for that candidate,” Ucles says.  “Don’t move until we get done counting you.”

Ucles is political director for the League of United Latin American Citizens of Iowa or LULAC. 

They’re in the thick of a campaign to turn out Latino voters next month, like Ismael Valadez whose family immigrated to the United States from Mexico when he was 9 years old. 

Valadez has human resources job in Council Bluffs.   This will be his first caucus.

“I started voting in 2014,” Valadez says.  “Prior to that I had no interest in it until I figured out a lot of things affect me personally, like education, jobs, health care, and obviously immigration.” 

Valadez has family members who’ve waited for years to achieve legal status.   But he says Latinos should also look at a candidate’s foreign policy because it affects the home countries of immigrants.   

Recent college graduate Marlu Abarca of Urbandale agrees immigration reform is not enough.

“As a community of immigrants, we’ve been hearing empty promises for so long,” Abarca says,   “going back to Bill Clinton who said we will have immigration reform and then he passed NAFTA.”

That’s the North American Free Trade Agreement which Abarca believes was not good for Mexico

Valadez and Abarca are among the Iowa Latinos who’ve already promised to caucus.   LULAC is hoping for many more.  

Christian Uclus says 50,000 Latinos are registered to vote.     LULAC is shooting for 10,000 to caucus.

“We have been knocking on doors, making phone calls, sending them mailers about the Iowa caucuses,” Ucles says.  “We do not endorse any candidates.”

There are only 67,000 Latinos in Iowa even eligible to vote, so they’re doing pretty well at registration.

“If you've registered 50,000 out of 67,000 that's a pretty darn high percentage,” says Mark Gray, head of the New Iowans Center at the University of Northern Iowa.   “I think it’s reachable and a reasonable goal across the state to have 10,000 Latinos participate in the caucuses.”

Gray says since the number of Latino voters in Iowa is small compared to other states, Republican candidates campaigning here have “gotten away with” a hard line on immigration.  

He says that could help motivate Latino turnout.   Christian Ucles says that in turn that could help Jeb Bush.    

“Twenty percent of our registered voters are Republican so who’s going to reach out to those?” Ucles asks.  “Jeb Bush is the one because he understands it.  LULAC has made out outreach to Rubio and Cruz and others.   There’s no interest there.”

Ucles,says Bush’s numbers on caucus night could get a boost if Latino Republicans show up.  

There are thousands of undocumented Latinos in Iowa who can’t vote, including Monica Reyes of Waterloo.   

Her undocumented mother brought her to the United States when she was a child.   But several of her family members can vote and she’s on their case to caucus.

“We have lots of friends, family, allies, community members that we talk to,” Reyes says.  “Because the Latino vote counts.”    

And that vote may count in some parts of the state more than others.   That includes in Iowa towns where local industry has attracted immigrant labor and where Latinos make up as much as a quarter of the local population.