When Julio Morales was 7 years old, he crossed the U.S.-Mexico border with his parents, and he has been living here illegally ever since. He has two younger brothers, the Americans in the family, who gained automatic U.S. citizenship when they were born in California.
Last week, the 24-year-old Morales, of Las Vegas, was among several illegal immigrant university students sitting openly in the front row and applauding U.S. Sen. Harry Reid as he promised Hispanic advocates he would try to pass the Dream Act.
The proposed law would give students legal status to complete their educations in six years, putting them on a path toward American citizenship.
“I’ve been living here pretty much all of my life,” said Morales, who doesn’t remember much about his early years in Mexico. “It would be hard to go back. It would be like a different world.”
The fate of Morales, his family and 11 million estimated illegal immigrants in the United States, including roughly 150,000 to 250,000 in Nevada, has sparked a burning election-year battle nationally and in the close race between Reid and Republican opponent Sharron Angle.
The immigration debate in Nevada is being driven, in part, by Reid’s effort to fire up his Hispanic supporters, including by blaming Republicans for blocking comprehensive reform this year.
“I don’t know how anyone of Hispanic heritage could be a Republican,” Reid told the students and activists last Tuesday, prompting a round of GOP criticism, including by Latino Republicans in Nevada.
But Hispanic Democrats wanted to hear a little red meat rhetoric from Reid after being disappointed he didn’t deliver on his promise for comprehensive reform this year. He needs their support to win on Nov. 2.
Two years ago, Latinos made up 15 percent of the Nevada electorate, a record high, with 76 percent voting for Democrat Barack Obama and 22 percent for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. In 2004, 60 percent backed Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and 39 percent voted for GOP President George W. Bush. McCain and Bush also have pressed for immigration reform.
Clearly, Hispanics are diverse and don’t always vote along party lines or on single issues. And in low turnout mid-term elections, only the most enthusiastic voters go to the polls.