Sleeping Power House? Latinos Combat Voter Apathy

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ORLANDO, Fla. - The Florida primary will be the first 2012 contest in which Latinos could play a decisive role.

The Latino community accounts for more than 10 percent of the state's registered Republican voters. But traditionally, the majority of Hispanics who register don't actually vote.

The disconnect is one reason why Latino churches in Florida are pushing their members to get out to the polls.

Pastor Nino Gonzales, senior pastor at Orlando's Iglesia El Calvario, said he used to be somewhat apathetic about voting.

But today he's leading the charge in central Florida's Hispanic evangelical community. He's turned his daily radio show into a vehicle to get out the vote.

And his megachurch recently rallied pastors and lay people at a non-partisan primary event designed to get out the vote.

"Many times people come and they think, 'Will my vote count? 'I was the majority there, but I'm the minority here.' So there's some perception that I feel we need to target," Gonzales said.

Immigration Reform

He and other Latino pastors believe their congregations need to be politically engaged now more than ever.

Unemployment and foreclosure rates among Latinos top the national averages and they're broken in many ways by an immigration system that is also in need of repair.

"I go to the pulpit and I tell people I have to preach hope. I'm not here to preach any other thing to the people," Gonzales told CBN News.

"But at the same time how do I preach hope to people who this week they took their parents away and now their kids are sent to a foster home because they were born here?" he asked.

"How do I preach hope to a young person -- and this has happened to me many times -- telling me, 'Pastor, they took my father!'" he said.

Orlando resident Lucas da Silva, 23, received the news three years ago.

"I got a call from my mom. 'Where's your dad?' she asked. 'I haven't heard from him,'" da Silva recalled.

"And I said, 'I don't know,' he replied. "I tried calling him and the phone just rang and rang and rang."

Da Silva's parents brought him to the U.S. from Brazil when he was 12-months-old. His father landed diplomatic visas for the family when he became a chauffeur for the United Nations in New York.

But after the terror attacks in Sept. 11, 2001, he decided it would be better to leave New York and move to Florida.

The da Silvas said they felt safer from the threat of terrorism. But deportation would prove to be the greater danger.

A few years later, as he was driving home from work one day, the police stopped da Silva's father for a minor traffic violation. After detaining him for several months, the U.S. government deported him.

"At this point it's hard to plan," da Silva said. "He got a 10-year ban, so he can't come back for 10 years and I can't go back to a country that's foreign to me. I don't even know how to read or write correctly -- what am I going to do?"

Da Silva said his mother feels responsible to stay in the U.S. to oversee his younger sister's education.

"I never imagined that I'd have my family ripped apart before my eyes," da Silva explained. "I never imagined that I'd never be able to see my dad again for at least a decade."

Although da Silva has decided to speak out publicly for immigration reform, he also faces the possibility of deportation at a moment's notice.

Threat of Deportation

"Carla" and "Luis" have the same worry. CBN News has hidden their identities for this report.

Luis was recently denied political asylum in the U.S., although he received death threats in his native country for criticizing the government.

The pair said Luis could be pulled over anytime, forced to leave the U.S. and his two sons. That possibility is painful for Luis, especially at night when he tucks his children into bed.

"Every night when I come to my child's bed…I don't know if I'm going to see him the next day, at the end of the day," he said. Luis and Carla said their small group at church is a big support for them.

For da Silva, his pastor was the one who helped the family navigate their deportation tragedy. Latino evangelical leaders say their stories are the new normal for today's church.

"Every pastor in every Latino church in the country has undocumented immigrants somewhere in their community, either directly worshipping in their place of worship or related to one of their parishioners," said Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.

"These are not numbers for us. These are the people we break the communion bread with," he added.

Political Powerhouse?

However, will these harsh realities prove to be a catalyst at the polls? Thanks to phenomenal growth nationwide, Latinos have the potential to become a political powerhouse.

But recent history shows they are slow to register and then often don't vote. During the 2010 mid-term elections for example, 66 percent of Latino eligible voters stayed home compared to 50 percent of white eligible voters.

For many Latinos, there's a sense that neither party is hearing their often socially conservative views, economic worries, and pent-up demand for immigration reform.

"What we've found in the last two elections, the mid-terms and now the 2012 presidential election, is a lot of Latino disillusionment with the political process, feeling they haven't been heard on immigration reform and the economy," Salguero explained.

"Our job as the National Latino Evangelical Coalition is to tell people, 'Don't get so disillusioned that you disengage but rather engage, have your voice heard.'"

"Be passionate. Set out a kingdom agenda and set out a national platform. Register and vote in great numbers so that the national evangelical voice is heard," he said.

For its part, NaLEC is organizing rallies in key Latino states around the country, hoping to draw attention to important issues for Latinos like immigration reform, education, and the economy.

Another Latino evangelical organization, the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, is also working to register Hispanics and get out the vote.

Ultimately, these groups hope that political leaders will take Latino concerns seriously, and that debate on comprehensive immigration reform can begin.

"We're here to obey the law, we're here to do justice," Gonzales said. "But we need to fix something that for so many years is not working."

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Heather Sells

Heather Sells

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