Latin Post presents "Turnout," a series that features leading Latino politicians, government leaders and advocacy groups discussing and debating the most important issues facing the Latino voting bloc.

What is the number one issue affecting the Latino community today? Will the growing class of Latinos in Congress make a difference in voter turnout? 

Latin Post's Michael Oleaga discussed these issues and many more during a one-on-one interview with Laura Maristany, the Director of Policy and Legislative Affairs for the National Association of Latino Elected Appointed Officials (NALEO). The nonprofit organization aims to fully engage Latinos with the U.S. political process. 

Michael Oleaga: For the State of the Union, I think many Latinos, or any group, can agree that President Barack Obama's address heavily focused on the economy, especially when he said "middle-class economics." Could you provide some insight to Latinos' role, especially the millennial demographic, if you can, to their impact on the U.S. economy?

Laura Maristany: Just because of our sheer numbers, we are obviously a big bloc. I think we like the stability of the economy ... any economic reforms that the president has implemented or plans to implement in the future obviously needs to take into account the challenges faced by the Latino community and the contributions our community makes to make our economy stronger every day. So, it absolutely has an incredible impact on what is happening across the nation.

Oleaga: Another big factor that President Barack Obama mentioned was education. He's trying to push for the free community college program. How beneficial would this be for the Latino community?

Maristany: We obviously know that education is one of the major issues that Latinos have identified ... not this year, but in previous years in surveys that have been done, Latinos have identified education as the No. 1 issue affecting our community. Any reform that targets low-income students is obviously going to have a big impact on the Latino community.

As it relates to community colleges, I don't have the statistics but we do know that a large number of Latinos enter the community college system because it's easier for them to navigate and it's a little bit more tailored for the working student and we know that a lot of our young Latinos have multiple responsibilities to take care of, so the community college system seems like a logical choice.

We are not taking any specific position on the president's proposal because we don't specifically handle education reform advocacy, but any reform that would make it easier and more accessible for students to go to community colleges, and subsequently to transfer to four-year institutions, is obviously going to be helpful for the community.

Oleaga: I think one thing NALEO has been promoting or is proud of has been that this Congress has the largest Latino class of any Congress in U.S. history. On behalf of NALEO, how do you feel that finally there's a growing class of Latinos in Congress?

Maristany: Obviously, the more Latinos that we get and the higher up that they can go within the chain is always going to be beneficial to the Latino community overall. We are very happy to see that we have a number of new members of Congress from both sides of aisle that are Latino, and not only there but also in state legislatures and state governments across the nation. We have a number of new Latinos who have also made it up the ranks, and again that is always going to be beneficial because it's going to give us more of a voice at the table and where decisions are being made. We are hopeful that a lot of these new Latinos coming into Congress are going to be working very closely with the Latino community and on the issues that are important to the community.

Oleaga: Because we have this large class of Latinos in Congress -- there are certain topics that greatly affect our community like immigration, the economy, voting rights -- do you think they will have a better say when it comes to progress?

Maristany: I think part of it is a two-part issue. One is yes, we do have the members, they understand we're still underrepresented in [context] while we do have members. Like I said, they're going up the ranks and they're becoming increasingly important, I don't know how much of an impact that is going to have in moving the needle on immigration reform.

What is going to have an impact on moving the needle is voter turnout. That's where we continue to say it's so important for Latinos to get out and vote because those are the numbers that members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle and all ethnicities and races, are going to be looking at when they have to make decisions as to what is important; where is the nation looking at? We did have some increases during the midterm elections on Latino voter participation and we are obviously going to be reminding members of Congress about the importance of that vote ... there are members, again from both sides of the aisle, that are very cognizant of the importance of that vote and are going to be pushing for registrations for issues that are important to us. We, of course, are going to be turning to those Latinos ... who lead the way in representing our community among their fellow members of Congress.

Oleaga: Continuing on voter turnout, could you provide some background as to what NALEO has done to engage Latinos to go out and vote?

Maristany: We had multiple initiatives around getting out the vote. We have during the election years a full campaign to get out the vote. We've focused on what we call the "Great Unengaged," which is voters that perhaps have never voted or haven't voted in a long time and they should be registered to vote or are eligible to vote, which is that segment of the population that a lot of people don't look at because campaigns would rather focus on the people who are easier to get. We have been doing a lot of analysis and research and contact with people to try to figure out what is keeping them from the polls. All of the statistics around how many Latinos go out and vote -- we work very closely with monitoring those numbers. We are expecting large Latino voter turnout for the 2016 presidential elections to go up, as well. We are already gearing up for the 2016 election.

For the midterm elections, we also had, not only for Latinos, a voter protection hotline where we were providing information to voters on whether they had questions if they were registered or where they had to go vote, but we were also monitoring for possible cases of discrimination or any cases where Latinos would have been kept from the polls for any reason, which is obviously an initiative that is very closely big to our voting rights work. We've been very active on that arena, and moving forward, we're also going to continue to work with Congress in everything that relates to the Voting Rights Act and trying to make sure that protections are put back into place to protect Latino voters and voters across the nation.

Oleaga: Going back to the State of the Union, is there perhaps an issue that you think President Obama could have emphasized further on?

Maristany: We have commented that he didn't really talk that much on immigration reform, but that is also related to the fact he delivered the speech in November announcing his executive orders. There really wasn't, I guess, a need to repeat some of the work that he's doing on that regard. But we do want to continue to encourage members of Congress to consider comprehensive immigration reform, and while we have a lot of the groups out there have revised their strategies in light of the new Congress and what we're going to be pushing for moving forward, we all really want to see -- and aside from the executive orders, which targets some of the issues that our community wants to see being addressed -- the fact is without comprehensive immigration reform, these protections are only temporary. We want to make sure that Congress moves forward with a package that looks at these issues comprehensively.


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