A Latino clergy group’s call on Hispanics to boycott voting for congressional candidates on Tuesday has drawn fire from some Latino leaders, who say that abstaining from voting will only hurt Latinos.
One of the leaders, Rev. Gabriel Salguero, director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at the Princeton Theological Seminary, said on Monday that it is a "tactical error with the potential for catastrophic consequences" to urge Hispanics not to vote as a show of protest over the failure of Congress to pass immigration reform legislation.
"I understand the frustration that is behind this call for Latinos not to vote," said Salguero, who is pastor of Lamb's Church of the Nazarene in New York City. "But it will not hurt the candidates as much as it will hurt Latinos themselves. Candidates simply will dismiss us. They will see no point to taking our issues and concerns seriously if we're absent at elections."
Last week, the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, joined a controversial campaign by Virginia-based Latinos for Reform that urged Hispanics not to vote for congressional candidates on Tuesday.
CONLAMIC, which stirred controversy last year when it launched a boycott of the 2010 Census, citing Congress's failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform, represents 20,000 mostly evangelical churches and 7 million members.
“We’re saying to Latinos, ‘Go to the polls, but leave the ballot blank,’” said Rev. Miguel Rivera, CONLAMIC's head and founder. “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 the no-vote campaign by CONLAMIC and Latinos for Reform, which is headed by Roberto de Posada.
"It does not matter who Latinos support," said Frank Argote-Freyre, president of Latino Action Network, a New Jersey-based group. "They should go out and vote on Tuesday and ignore the advice of people, like Reverend Rivera, who advocate an extremist agenda. Go to the polls and ignore Rivera and Posada."
In Washington D.C., Gloria Montaño Greene, director of the Washington D.C. office of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials (NALEO) said: “For individuals like Rev. Rivera and the [Latinos for Reform] video and ad last week telling us to stay home is voter suppression, un-American and cynical. This needs to be denounced.”
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,” Menéndez said.
“Republican operatives know that it is the Democrats who have responded to Latino issues.”
Rivera, a self-styled conservative, as well as 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. Latinos for Reform'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 crisscrosses the country numerous times a month, speaking at his member churches and at rallies that at times have drawn thousands.
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.
"Evangelical Latinos are an emerging political force," said Salguero, one of the nation's most prominent evangelical leaders. "This call to leave ballots blank concerns me because Reverend Rivera should not be seen as speaking for all evangelical Latinos. We can be a swing vote."
"We have been telling our congregations not to listen to these boycott messages," he said. "Many of our people suffered voter suppression in their native countries, so here we want to express ourselves, we must vote, even for a candidate that is not perfect. The ideal political candidate -- the one who has an ideal position on every issue that may be important to a voter -- simply does not exist."
When Rivera 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 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.”
Elizabeth Llorente is Senior Reporter for FoxNews.com, and can be reached at Elizabeth.Llorente@Foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @Liz_Llorente.