'Today we march," the banners read, "tomorrow we vote." Seventeen-year-old Paulo V., an undocumented Brazilian student who marched at an immigrant rally in Boston three months ago, was among the Latinos who saw hope in those words. "This was the determining point," says Paulo. Before the marches, "I didn't know anything about the topic. But after, I understood how much I could be a part of it."
Recently, he took a break from painting houses with his dad to teach Edirson Paiva, the editor of a local Portuguese-language newspaper who just got his US citizenship, how to register to vote. "Even if I can't vote," Paulo says in his native Portuguese, "I can get 10 others to vote."
Five months after pro-immigrant protests swept through more than 100 US cities, an unprecedented Hispanic political force seems to be taking hold, one that may finally unite what could be the fastest-growing voting bloc in the United States.
In the latest poll after the marches, 63 percent of Latinos surveyed said the rallies signaled the beginning of a new social movement, according to the 2006 National Survey of Hispanics by the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington, D.C.
"It's important because Latinos have not been a major political force in the US," says Gabriel Escobar, the center's research director and coauthor of the study. It's even more significant "because they represent the fastest-growing minority in the nation. Every year the population will grow and more Latinos will vote."
Currently, 4 out of every 10 adult Latinos are noncitizens and therefore cannot vote. Historically, their voter-participation numbers have lagged. In the last presidential election, only 18 percent of all Hispanics voted, compared with about half of the non-Hispanic white population and more than one-third (39 percent) of the black population, according to Pew data.
The marches may have been a catalyst for change. In the last Pew poll, three-quarters of Latinos said the debate would prompt many more of them to vote in November.
Others are skeptical. "We've been hearing this for years," says John Keeley, director of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) in Washington. He might be persuaded if a poll found that naturalized citizens who did not vote in '04 were more likely to in '08.
In order to wield more political power, Latinos need to tackle several issues. One is unity. Mexicans, Brazilians, Salvadorans, and others feel connected to their native lands but have a harder time identifying themselves as "Hispanics." The policy debates that launched the protests may have changed that. The Pew survey showed that most Latinos (58 percent) now believe they are working to achieve common goals.
The decentralized nature of the movement has helped unify those nationalities around a common goal, says Maria Elena Letona, director of Centro Presente, an immigrant-advocacy group in Cambridge, Mass. "There's not a leader or an organization in particular that stands out [as] in past movements," Ms. Letona explains, "where we have a Martin Luther King Jr. or a César Chávez, because it's not the vision of one but of many."
In order to make that vision a reality, US-born and naturalized Latinos must vote.
"There's an incredible apathy problem," says Jim Gimpel, a professor of government at the University of Maryland in College Park. "Many Latinos seem difficult to mobilize. They tell you: 'What if I do it wrong?' They don't have a sense of advocacy or self-esteem and it's hard to overcome."
The language barrier has also been a problem, says Tom Patterson of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government in Cambridge, Mass. "If you don't speak the language well, how do you navigate this bureaucracy? How do you reach the polls?"
As the debate intensifies, challenges to the movement could come from those who say that illegal immigrants increase crime, overburden hospitals and schools, drive down salaries, and take jobs from US citizens. Several polls show that many want the current wave of immigration to slow and even stop. More than half of Latinos (54 percent) say they see an increase in discrimination as a result of the policy debate, the Pew survey says.
"If anything, we've seen a backlash," says Mr. Keeley of CIS. "It had the unintended effect because it really turned off a lot of Americans who were watching [the marches] on TV."
But the marches, spurred by a House bill that would make it a crime for 11 million illegal immigrants to live and work in the US, also seem to be causing a Hispanic reaction.
"I had always been uninterested in the government," says Lisandro Figueroa, a Salvadoran architect who entered the US illegally three years ago. "But now that there are things worth fighting for, I'm convinced, and I'd like to have the chance to vote. Aside from the marches, it's the vote that can make the difference," says Figueroa, who works at construction and cleaning jobs and pays his taxes.
It's marchers like Figueroa who have the potential to change things, says Pablo Alvarado, national coordinator of the National Day Labor Organizing Network, an immigrant-rights group based in Los Angeles. "The true leaders are the persons who fight to feed their kids, that march in the streets and register to vote because at the end, it's the immigrant worker who has to face the politics," he says.
Letona of Centro Presente says that after the House bill (now on hold), immigrants came together through Spanish-language media, e-mailng, and by telephone. "Technology has had a lot to do with this movement," she says. "Communities can keep in touch via the Internet and cellphones, and we're part of server lists and can check what's going on in the country."
"If you look at Hispanic voters ... they're the future battleground of American politics," Harvard's Mr. Patterson says. "The Democratic Party has not been able to get back the white vote that it lost in the 1960s, and Republicans can't get the African-American vote, so Latinos have the potential for power."
By the 2008 election, Latinos could make a difference, Patterson and members of both parties believe.
"Latinos will continue to have an increasingly important role, and you can't argue with the numbers," says Luis Miranda, spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. "We're not going to take a single vote for granted.... So we're going to reach out to Hispanics in every state through media, town hall meetings, and bilingual publications."
Danny Diaz, spokesman for the Republican National Committee, also says his party has strived to attract Hispanics. "Under this president, it has been a priority," Mr. Diaz says. "[Bush] had 40 percent of the Hispanic vote ... and when you look at the fact that the surgeon general and attorney general are Hispanics, they send messages that if you work hard this is the land of opportunity. "
Last month, thousands of Latinos marched in Chicago calling for a better treatment of illegal immigrants in the largest rally in the city since the March protests.
"It's unpredictable what will happen," says Mr. Alvarado, the former illegal immigrant who now fights for day-laborers' rights. "But I know that the children, the workers, and even the Americans who participated in the marches will be different."
"Everybody is part of this campaign, so you don't have to be a citizen," Paulo says after he finishes explaining how to register to Mr. Paiva. "I know what it's like – I've lived through this. If I become an important leader, I'll keep on helping – even if I get my citizenship," he says.