by ADAM BURKE
LAS VEGAS — President Barack Obama chose Las Vegas to unveil his ideas on immigration reform. And while some might see the middle of the Mojave Desert as an odd place for a seminal speech on immigration, Las Vegas may have been the perfect soapbox.
Nevada is home to some 190,000 undocumented immigrants -- some of them politically active. Take 49-year-old Maria Espinosa, for example, who works low-paying jobs making fast food and cleaning houses. Last fall, Espinosa helped Barack Obama win in Nevada.
"He was my hope," she said. "For me and for a lot of undocumented people.”
Espinosa canvassed neighborhoods. She worked at phone banks. And she rallied other undocumented immigrants. When undocumented people told her they were powerless to act because they have no vote, her response was:
"Maybe you have a friend, a neighbor, family, that they are citizens. And they know how you are working hard for this country. Just tell them: you know vote. Vote. Because you can be my voice, you can help me, getting my papers.”
Espinosa was part of a successful grassroots mobilization brought a record number of Latinos to the polls in Nevada. Some 80 percent of Nevada Latinos voted for Obama.
"Nevada’s Latino community is a perfect microcosm of the people that president Obama needs to be speaking to about what his case is and why this matters so much," said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic Party organizer and consultant in Las Vegas.
“If you look at the Hispanic population in Nevada, it’s very representative of what it is, nationally," Ramirez said. "The breakdown of Hispanics between Mexicans and Cubans and Central and South Americans. And also between those that are citizens, non-citizens and those that are undocumented.”
President Obama’s decision to speak in Nevada does many things. It’s part love letter to the Latino voters who helped hand him a second term. It’s part policy -- a chance to outline the big pieces of the bipartisan legislative effort that seems to be close at hand. And it’s political stagecraft in the Southwest, a region that’s become increasingly significant to the Democratic Party over the last decade.
David Damore, a political scientist based at the University of Nevada Las Vegas and an analyst with the polling group Latino Decisions, said the Southwest is important ground for Democrats.
“You see the shift in the Democratic Party to really compete in this region, trying to secure the Latino vote going forward," said Damore. Not just here but obviously Colorado, New Mexico, and eventually Arizona. So there’s a great deal of political significance to this region for the Democratic Party."
Some Republicans will be looking to ride the president’s coattails too. Damore points to recent polling data that shows nearly half of Latino voters don’t affiliate strongly with either party.
"If the Republican was to help pass comprehensive immigration reform, with a pathway to citizenship, Latino voters would give them a second look," Damore said. "This then would give the Republicans the opportunity to promote some of the other issues that have largely gotten drowned out, because of the saliency of the immigration issue within the Latino community."
But this is the President’s moment at the bully pulpit. And Damore said one of Obama's targets will be first-time voters. In Nevada, some 40 percent of Latinos who voted had never voted before. And if these new voters credit the Democratic Party with bringing home immigration reform, that could be a huge win for Democrats.
"This could create a strong identification between younger Latino voters and the Democratic Party moving forward," Damore said.