The National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which represents
20,000 mostly evangelical churches and 7 million members, is telling its congregants
— as well as other Latinos — to heed the widely criticized call this month by
Latinos for Reform discouraging Hispanics from voting.

«We’re saying to Latinos, ‘Go to the polls, but leave the ballot blank,'» said Rev.
Miguel Rivera, head and founder of the clergy group, known as CONLAMIC. «That way,
our numbers, our presence at the polls will be there, and our message of disappointment
too.

«The community has been disappointed because nothing has been done for it, especially
about immigration,» Rivera added. «They promise to reform immigration when they
are seeking our votes, then do nothing when they’re elected. Why vote when you’ve
been taken advantage of? This is a grassroots campaign.»

Groups that have been working to motivate Latinos to vote expressed outrage over
CONLAMIC’s no-vote campaign.

Sen. Robert Menéndez, the chair of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee,
called Rivera’s move «alarming» and «disdainful.»

«[Rivera] was also the person who said, ‘Don’t fill out the Census forms,'» Menéndez
said. «You make your voice heard by participating. In the political structure of
this country, if you don’t vote they – Democrats and Republicans, both – don’t
care about you. That’s the crass political reality. Not voting is not going to get
Hispanics what they need, it’s not going to get educational reform, it won’t change
the economics for our families.»

Political experts say Hispanic voters could be crucial to election outcomes in such
states as Nevada, California and Colorado. Latinos make up 9.2 percent, or 19 million,
of all eligible voters. Roughly 41 percent of Latinos are eligible to vote. Latinos
comprise at least 25 percent of the population in nearly one in five congressional
districts.

Menéndez, like many other Democratic leaders, calls the voting boycott a tool for
Republicans. He says Republicans back campaigns urging Hispanics to sit out such
things as voting «because they know that if Hispanics vote, they will overwhelmingly
vote Democrat.»

Some 65 percent of Latino voters are registered Democrats, while 22 percent are
registered Republicans.

«I always tell people they should vote, I don’t care who they vote for,» Mendéndez
said. «Republican operatives know that it is the Democrats who have responded to
Latino issues.»

Rivera, a self-styled conservative, as well as Roberto de Posada, the head of the
group that started the «Don’t Vote» campaign, both counter that the Democratic party
has taken Hispanics for granted. They say the Obama administration promised, but
has failed, to push hard for a comprehensive immigration reform bill that would
tighten border security as well as provide a pathway to legalization for illegal
immigrants who meet certain criteria.

Rivera and de Posada both stressed that the Republican Party has let Hispanics down,
too.

«They haven’t brought the eggs and bacon they promised to the table,» Rivera said.
«In both parties, candidates have failed Hispanics. The Republican Party has hurt
itself too much in our community, and the Democratic Party is too bureaucratic.»

Rivera and de Posada say that in the Nevada U.S. Senate race, for instance, they
support neither Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, nor his Republican opponent,
Sharron Angle, because neither has been responsive to Latino concerns, particularly
relating to immigration.

In California’s 47th congressional district race, Rivera supports neither the Democratic
incumbent, Loretta Sánchez, or her Republican challenger, Van Tran. Instead, he
said, he supports Cecilia Iglesias, a conservative candidate — and, he admits,
a long-shot — who is running as an Independent.

«She is a conservative Christian,» he said.

The decision by Rivera to add his organization’s support to the «Don’t Vote» campaign
fuels the concern many hoping for a significant Latino turnout have had since the
little-known Latinos for Reform’s ads showed up on TV and the Internet. The Virginia-based
group’s press release carried the title: «Latinos, Don’t be Taken for Granted. This
November, DON’T VOTE.»

To be sure, de Posada is no rookie in the world of politics. He was the Republican
National Committee’s director of Hispanic affairs, and was part of the Bush administration’s
Social Security Commission. The «Don’t Vote» campaign grabbed the national spotlight
when Univisión pulled the ad from its Las Vegas Spanish-language radio station after
Nevada Democrats assailed it. At one point, Reid accused Angle of being behind the
ad. The Angle camp called Reid’s charge «a desperate lie.»

Now enters Rivera.

He enjoys a direct line of communication to political leaders of both the Democratic
and Republican Party and has a high profile in the nation. He wields enormous influence
over his group’s congregations – part of the growing Hispanic evangelical population
that Republicans have been courting increasingly in recent years. He crisscrosses
the country numerous times a month, speaking at his member churches and at rallies
that at times have drawn thousands.

When the pastor kicked off the Census boycott last year, Menéndez noted that as
the head of such a sprawling religious organization, Rivera had «an echo chamber»
for his ideas.

Under intense criticism, much of it from friends and allies, Rivera forged ahead
with his call for undocumented immigrants, in particular, not to participate in
the 2010 Census. He argued that those wanting undocumented immigrants to be part
of the population count then turn their backs on them when they’re asked to support
immigration reform measures. He urged immigrants not to allow themselves to be exploited
for what he said was the desire for higher population figures in order to obtain
more federal funding.

«We know, for sure, that at least 1 million of our own undocumented members did
not cooperate with the Census,» said Rivera, whose organization was among the first
to file a lawsuit challenging Arizona’s immigration enforcement law.

Last year, Rivera persuaded Rep. Luís Gutiérrez, an Illinois Democrat upon whom
the Obama administration had relied to drum up support for immigration reform, to
hold «town meetings» on immigration in churches around the country.

Rivera and de Posada say that they’re not out to portray all of Congress as uncaring
about reforming the immigration system. Menéndez and Gutiérrez, they note, both
have authored legislation aimed at comprehensive immigration reform.

But immigration is still a highly divisive issue, and a political hot potato. And
many on both sides of the debate who had hoped for comprehensive immigration reform
say they doubt any real change in the system will be coming any time soon.

Polls show that more than a third of Latino voters see both parties as not trying
hard enough to pass immigration reform. And while Latinos surveyed said they felt
that Democrats were more likely than Republicans to work for passage of an immigration
bill, nearly 40 percent said Democrats and Republicans in Congress seemed to be
avoiding or ignoring immigration.

«We are saying that when you go vote, you should ask yourself, when you get to the
congressional candidates, has the member of Congress delivered on the promise to
help immigrants,» de Posada said. «If the answer is no, then don’t vote for them.

«We say don’t vote for people who betrayed you,» he added.

De Posada said he is urging Latinos to show up at the polls, and cast their ballots
for local, county and state candidates. But when they get to congressional candidates,
he said, they should think long and hard about voting for someone who has not –
or someone who is unlikely to – act on the broken immigration system.

«Leave that race blank,» he said. «Today I went to the polls, and I voted for every
proposition, but I didn’t vote for a congressional candidate.

«The Republicans have been awful, their rhetoric has been horrendous, completely
irresponsible,» he continued. «Democrats have been as bad in their inaction as
Republicans have been in their rhetoric.»

In Nevada, for instance, neither Reid nor Angle augur well for Latinos, de Posada
said.

Plenty of groups, such as National Council for La Raza (NCLR), have voiced their
own frustration over the failed attempts, during both the Bush and Obama administrations,
to pass immigration reform measures.

In an appeal to Latinos to «Vote for Respect,» NCLR notes on its Web site: «Latinos
have a long and proud history in America, but anti-Latino sentiment has escalated
in our country in recent years. We are tired of being the punching bag. And we are
tired of Congress ignoring our endless calls for immigration reform! It’s time for
us to stand up and say that we won’t tolerate being the punching bag anymore. This
November 2, punch back!»

Punching back, NCLR officials say, is not done by abstaining from voting.

«Silence is not going to set us free,» said Clarissa Martínez, director of Immigration
and National Campaigns at NCLR, a leading civil rights organization. «One of the
clearest choices Latino voters may have in November is to vote for respect.»

Menéndez said that a lower-than-expected Latino turnout would be a huge setback
for the community.

«If Martin Luther King and other civil rights leaders had stayed home, and told
other people to stay home,» he said, «the course of history would have been quite
different.»