La Plaza: Latino Businesses Mobilize For Election

Welcome to Alejandro Lazo's occasional blog-within-a-blog on the region's Latino business community; we're calling it "La Plaza."

By Alejandro Lazo

They are calling it a hard lesson well learned.

Following Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigration earlier this year and a slew of anti-illegal-immigration bills introduced in the Virginia General Assembly, a coalition of Latino business owners is mobilizing to register and turn out the Latino vote in Northern Virginia this November.

Many Latinos left the county following the crackdown, according to many politicians and activists. That exodus exacerbated the downturn in the housing market as homes were left abandoned. Retail businesses that cater to Latinos also suffered, said Mauricio Vivero, executive director of the Ayuda Business Coalition, which is organizing the voter efforts.

Mauricio Vivero, executive director of the Ayuda Business Coalition, interviews a potential Latino voter at the group's District office. Photo credit: Claus Ortega for

"We need Latinos to participate," Vivero said. "Latino businessmen really learned the hard lesson in Prince William County, which is: if you are not involved, public policy can really affect the local economy."

Voter registration booths are being set up in grocery stores, restaurants and at soccer matches throughout the region, the group says. And it plans to spread the word in Spanish-language advertisements warning "Si No Votas, No Cuentas," or, "If You Don't Vote, You Don't Count," Vivero said.

The Ayuda coalition, a non-profit organization which counts more than 100 Latino-owned businesses in Northern Virginia, was founded last year as a suits-and-ties answer to the activist groups that organized boycotts and marches in protest of Prince William's crackdown. The result has been that Ayuda's message, until now, has largely been aimed at lawmakers.

The group first engaged the Prince William County Board of Supervisors and later lobbied members of the Virginia Assembly when 130 bills were introduced to crackdown on illegal immigrants this spring. The coalition sponsored television advertisements ahead of statewide elections last November featuring images of empty buildings and signs of shop liquidations in Riverside, N.J. -- which had passed a resolution penalizing employers who hire illegal immigrants -- suggesting a similar scenario could play out in Virginia.

The group's intentions were not only to try and influence policy, but show lawmakers that Latinos -- a group that typically comes out to the polls in lower numbers than their white counterparts -- know how to work the political system and should be taken seriously, Vivero said.

"A lot of groups do marches and rallies," Vivero said. "We have exclusively done our lobbying through the eyes of businessmen and women and that is why we have created this coalition -- because we think the economic arguments are often the strongest."

Only a handful of the measures introduced in the Virginia Assembly ultimately passed, with lawmakers outside of Northern Virginia showing less enthusiasm for such laws. But the crackdown on illegal immigrants in Prince William County remains in place.
With Old Dominion in play in the presidential election this year, Ayuda wants to capitalize on its lobbying efforts. The group began polling Latinos in Northern Virginia last week and hired a full-time "voter engagement liaison" on Tuesday. The group has received a $15,000 grant from the Center for Community Change in Washington, an organization that focuses on building community groups and the issues of poverty and civic involvement, to carry out its voter drive. Ayuda plans to raise additional money by seeking other grants and holding fundraisers, Vivero said.

Elmer Arias, the director of the Central American Soccer League in Fairfax and a member of Ayuda, said the Latino vote could be a decisive one this election and business leaders could play an especially important role.

"The truth is we are the ones who have the tools and the facility to do this with some of the shops and restaurants that our community visits," Arias said. "We can do this work very easily."

Carlos Castro, owner of the Hispanic grocery store chain Todos, said Hispanic businesses in Northern Virginia were caught by surprise by the recent wave of anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment.

"We want to make sure that now that everybody is aware of what is going on, that we not allow our people to lower their guard," Castro said. "This is ongoing."

By Dan Beyers  |  August 14, 2008; 1:00 PM ET  | Category:  La Plaza
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Please email us to report offensive comments.

We are not against Latinos. Why is this so hard a concept to you. We are against people breaking our laws and you should be too.

Posted by: vmj | August 15, 2008 10:01 AM

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