WASHINGTON — Huge surges among Hispanic populations in the Deep South could mean a political sea change over the next two decades, as immigrants become naturalized and they and their American-born children register to vote, political and demographics experts say.
The states with some of the largest percentages in Hispanic population growth make up a large swath of the Southeast: Alabama, Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to an analysis of the most recent census figures by the Pew Hispanic Center.
In all those Republican-dominated states, the percentage of Hispanics nearly doubled.
In Georgia, that population grew by 96 percent over the past decade, according to the Pew study. Only 23 percent of Georgia's Latino population is eligible to vote, compared with 42 percent nationwide, figures that reflect the state's high numbers of young Hispanics and new immigrants, said Mark Hugo Lopez, the associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center.
However, in Georgia, as in many parts of the country, "there are a number of campaigns to continue to focus on people who are here legally to become citizens," Lopez said. "There continue to be efforts to get them naturalized and registered to vote."
Latino elected officials and activists predict that anti-immigration laws and concerns about redistricting will galvanize that group to become politically active, in much the same way that the civil rights movement spurred African-Americans in the South to register to vote and run for public office.
When a group of political kingmakers in Columbus, Ga., first approached Evelyn "Mimi" Woodson more than a decade ago about running for the city council, the tennis-shoes-and-blue-jeans-wearing former candy store owner turned grass-roots activist scoffed.
She ran. She won. She made history.
"It was a big challenge at first," said Woodson, who was the first Latina in Georgia elected to a city council. "When I would bring up a Latino issue, I would get criticized for focusing on Latino issues. I told them I represent all the people, doesn't matter if you're black or white."
Woodson said she thought her election foreshadowed things to come.
"The Latino population is still in play politically," said Andra Gillespie, a political science assistant professor at Emory University in Atlanta. "With the secular realignment of whites in the South to the Republican Party, Democrats could be at an advantage. Now that there is a third racial group entering the fray, you'll see both groups vying for this group."
However, no group votes monolithically, and both political parties have work to do.
Despite the inroads Republicans were able to make within the Latino community under both Bush presidencies, Hispanics — who can be of any race — have felt increasingly put off by some Republicans' anti-immigration rhetoric.
The Georgia legislature recently passed an immigration bill that contains language on verifying the citizenship of new hires and criminals that's very similar to an Arizona law being challenged in court.
"The calculation among many Republicans in the South is that they can get away with it, for now," said Frank Sharry, the executive director of America's Voice Education Fund, a Washington-based immigration advocacy group. "The Latino vote is going to transform American politics, even in the South. Imagine coalitions of Latinos, African-Americans and liberal whites turning states that are now ruby red into states that are purple or even blue. If Republicans continue to antagonize Latino voters, they may be facing their comeuppance."
Hispanic voters are nearly three times more prevalent in states that gained congressional seats and Electoral College votes in the 2010 reapportionment than they are in states that lost seats, according to an analysis of census data by the Pew Hispanic Center. Based on averages reflecting congressional gains and losses, 15.2 percent of the eligible voter population in states that gained seats is Hispanic, compared with 5.4 percent of eligible voters in those states that lost seats, the study showed.
Georgia gained a seat, as did South Carolina. Florida gained two seats and Texas gained four.
Republicans could take advantage of Hispanics' disappointment in Democrats for failing to pass a comprehensive immigration overhaul or even smaller efforts such as the DREAM Act, which would give the children of illegal immigrants a path to citizenship.
But by continuing to push anti-immigration measures, Republicans may miss an opportunity to connect with Hispanic voters, said Gillespie, of Emory University.
"Republicans can't assume because Latinos are socially conservative and increasingly evangelical in their beliefs that they'll vote with them. You're waking a sleeping giant by espousing policies that are perceived to be threatening in the way they are framed," Gillespie said. "Democrats can't rest on their laurels, either. This is a group that has been under-mobilized."
Opportunities for that type of mobilization are "ripe for the picking" in the 2012 election cycle, Gillespie said.
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