LAS VEGAS (Reuters) - After Gabriela Pineda exited the Los Angeles Convention Center this month clutching her naturalization papers, the newly minted citizen marched straight over to a table set up by Democratic Party organizers to register voters.
Among the registration forms was a pamphlet titled “GOP Clown Car 2016.” It featured pictures of each of the Republican presidential candidates.
A word balloon above the image of Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the Republican nomination, quoted his controversial remarks about illegal immigrants from Mexico: “They’re bringing drugs, they’re bringing crime,” it read. “They’re rapists.”
For Democrats and Republicans, convincing unregistered Latino voters - as many as 12 million, according to some advocacy groups - to vote in the November 2016 election is the first step to securing the support of a critical bloc of voters. Outside of swearing-in ceremonies, schools and even grocery stores, both parties are scrambling to register Latino voters.
In heavily Latino areas, Democratic party and progressive activists are actively promoting the inflammatory immigration rhetoric of Trump and some other Republican presidential candidates as part of their voter registration campaigns.
It shows up in video and radio advertisements, runs across voter education websites, and even appeared at last month’s Latin Grammy awards, where Mexican rockers Maná and long-time norteño band Los Tigres del Norte concluded a performance by holding up a sign in Spanish that read “Latinos united don’t vote for racists.”
“Our best spokespeople are the Republican candidates,” said Randy Borntrager, the political director for People for the American Way, a liberal activist group which released radio ads earlier this year in Spanish and English using Trump as a prod to get Hispanics to vote in local Virginia elections.
In one commercial, a mother urges her daughter to vote “para callarle la bocota a Trump” (“to shut Trump’s big mouth”).
Trump’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment, but Fred Doucette, the co-chairman of Trump’s campaign in New Hampshire, said most Latinos he had met were not offended by Trump’s comments. “The ones that are upset are the ones that are illegal quite frankly,” he said.
To be sure, Latinos, like other racial and ethnic groups, are hardly monolithic. Some Latino voters support Trump or other Republican candidates, such as senators Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, both Cuban-American, and Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida who speaks fluent Spanish.
Alfonso Aguilar, director of Latino partnership at the conservative American Principles Project acknowledges that “Donald Trump is a political gift to the Democratic political machine,” which presents the Republican party as the party of Trump.
And that’s a problem because the party needs Latino voters. The Pew Hispanic Center said Latinos made up 10 percent of the electorate in the 2012 election and overwhelmingly picked President Barack Obama (71 percent) over his Republican opponent Mitt Romney (27 percent).
Outside the Los Angeles Convention Center, Pineda, a 36-year-old immigrant from Honduras, was among those who made no secret of her distaste for Trump, who launched his campaign by promising to build “a great, great wall on our southern border” to keep out illegal immigrants.
“Those things that Donald Trump said, that just upsets people,” she said.
Pineda is one of the tens of thousands of Latinos who have registered in 2015 to vote. These include people who had never registered before - newly naturalized citizens and teenagers just turning 18.
“When Donald Trump decided to get into the campaign by insulting all the Latinos, we saw an increase in voter registrations,” said Ben Monterroso, the executive director of Mi Familia Vota, a nonpartisan group dedicated to building the political power of Latinos in the United States.
The group said it registered about 32,000 new Latino voters in 2015 - about twice what they would expect in a non-election year. They plan to register as many as 95,000 next year in Arizona, California, Colorado, Florida, Nevada and Texas, all states with significant populations of Latinos.
And the League of United Latin American Citizens hopes to register 25,000 voters next year. In 2012, they registered 14,500 in the months before the election, when voter interest peaked, said Sindy M. Benavides, the director of civic engagement and community mobilization at LULAC. The group is also pushing to get more volunteers ready to register voters.
Sustaining voter interest could be a challenge, particularly if Trump fails to win the nomination. That’s why it’s important to focus on the underlying issues rather than specific candidates, said Andres Ramirez, a Nevada-based political consultant.
“We’re not pushing back against an individual because we don’t want the movement tied to an individual,” said Ramirez. “Simply coming out here and shouting that Trump’s a racist isn’t going to change outcomes.”
Immigration, for example, remains an important issue for Latino communities, along with jobs and economic policy.
Nevertheless, Trump remains the poster boy for many Latino voter registration efforts.
The Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, for example, put Trump on their website’s home page: “Respond to Trump: Register a Mexican American to vote today.”
The New American Democracy Campaign, which works to help immigrants naturalize and register to vote, created a 30-second ad that begins with black-and-white images of smiling people as Trump’s voice talks about how “they” are bringing drugs and crime. But then the images change and the people acquire labels, such as Jose Hernandez, a NASA astronaut. It closes with a plea: “Our future is at stake ... Become a citizen today.”
The anti-immigrant rhetoric has also spurred people to tap their own networks in the Latino community to boost voter registration.
Jose Macias, 26, an organizer with the union-backed Fight for $15 movement, which argues for a higher minimum wage, in Las Vegas, estimates he’s registered about 90 new Latino voters this year, from work sites to high schools, and has spoken to hundreds of people at citizenship clinics about voting.
“When they attack Latinos, when they attack our families, that’s when we know that we have to fight back,” said Macias. “If you just stay home and watch telenovelas, nothing’s ever going to happen.”
(This version of the story corrects 17th paragraph to change Mi Familia Vota’s registration expectations in non-election years)
Reporting by Luciana Lopez, editing by Paul Thomasch and Ross Colvin