As host for the National Association of Elected and Appointed Officials, Orlando has been the epicenter of national politics this week. NALEO's annual conference has featured appearances by President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney, as well as other high-profile politicians. NALEO represents more than 6,000 Latino officials. Its president, Sylvia R. Garcia — a former county commissioner, city controller and judge in her native Texas — recently talked with the Sentinel editorial board about the growing importance of the Latino vote and her group's position on key issues in this year's campaign.
Q: How did the NALEO conference land both Obama and Romney?
A: I think anyone that wants to go to the White House knows they have to deal with the largest growing constituency in this country, which is Latinos. … This conference has historically been the one that gets the campaigns' attention because we are not partisan; we strictly deal with issues that matter most to the Latino community. They also know it's the largest gathering of Latino officials. You multiply that by the numbers that we reach through our constituencies, and the numbers are tremendous.
Q: Is the Latino vote getting more attention this year than it did four years ago?
A: We have steadily increased in turnout the last two election cycles. We expect about 12.2 million Latinos to vote in this November's election. And that would be an increase of about 25 percent, because last time it was a little bit less than 10 million. And before that it was probably more around 7 or 8 million. And so every cycle it's a steady increase.
Q: How might that growth impact this year's election results?
A: If you look at the battleground states, in about four or five of them, it's the Latino vote that's going to be the decisive vote. We can in our numbers, just by voting, be the deciding factor in who goes to the White House.
Q: What's the buzz inside NALEO about the possibility that Marco Rubio could wind up on a national ticket?
A: I think for all Latinos, no matter which side of the aisle they're on, there's a sense of pride and excitement any time a Latino leader in this country is talked about positively. … Whether that will really motivate Latinos — will provide the enthusiasm for them to vote for that ticket — that's a separate matter.
Q: Is immigration the dominant issue for Latinos, or is it the economy, education or health care?
A: They're all on the table. Latinos are just like all Americans. We're all worried about good jobs — a job that comes with a good salary and health insurance. That's what holds families together. … We did polls … that showed that immigration reform was in the top three issues, but it's there with access to health care and education…. People want a good education for their children. That's the equalizer.
Q: Does the president's policy suspending some deportations make up for not passing immigration reform?
A: We think this is a very good step, a very positive step, but we'll continue to work with the administration to make sure that we get to the ultimate goal, which is full comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship, and a full DREAM Act.
Q: What you call a pathway to citizenship other people call amnesty. Is there a distinction?
A: Oh, absolutely. An amnesty means, you just say everyone can go ahead and file [for citizenship]. NALEO's principles do not call for an immediate full amnesty for anyone. We do think that people have to be here a certain number of years. We do think they have to pay their taxes. We do think they should not be criminals. We do think they should learn some English to be able to pass a test. … We do think they need to pledge their allegiance to this country. That is not amnesty. I think, frankly, that amnesty's just a throwaway word that many of our critics use.