LAKE BUENA VISTA, Florida (Reuters) - Democratic presidential candidates wooed Hispanic voters on Saturday with pledges to keep working for immigration laws that would allow more of those already in the United States to become citizens and voters.
Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and five other Democrats spoke to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials two days after the U.S. Senate killed a proposal that would have created a path to citizenship for more than 12 million illegal immigrants, many of them Hispanic.
The association had supported the proposal and the candidates said they would keep working for a better version that weighed the contributions of immigrants as heavily as the need for border security.
“I want my daughters to be raised in a community in which all people, and not just some, are considered part of the American family,” Obama, an Illinois senator who would be the first black president, told the conference at Walt Disney World.
Clinton, the New York senator who leads the Democratic field in national polls for the November 2008 election, said the United States must find a way to tighten border security while giving undocumented workers a sensible way to become legal workers even if they lack the high-tech skills favored for visa applications.
“Many of us had relatives who came to this country without skills but have made a great contribution to themselves and their families and we’re proud of them and we want to give more people that chance going forward,” Clinton said.
Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut characterized the recent immigration debate as a race to see “who out there can be the most anti-Hispanic.” Hispanics are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic minority in the United States and make up about 15 percent of the population.
All four Democratic candidates in the Senate — Clinton, Obama, Dodd and Joe Biden of Delaware — voted to advance the now-failed immigration proposal.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson drew cheers when he told the crowd in Spanish, “You are my family!” and joked he should be allotted more time to speak because he was the only Hispanic presidential candidate.
Richardson, whose mother is from Mexico, said Republicans who helped defeat the immigration bill erred when they focused on fencing off the southern U.S. border and deporting illegal residents. But he said they also erred by viewing Latinos as single-issue voters concerned only with immigration issues.
“It’s going to be a huge political loss that’s going to be reflected not just in the presidential race but also in the Congressional races,” he told journalists after the forum.
Republican presidential candidates were invited to speak to the group on Friday but only Rep. Duncan Hunter of California showed up. Former Alaska Sen. Mike Gravel was the only no-show among the Democrats on Saturday.
John Edwards, the Democrats’ 2004 vice presidential nominee, called the border fence “crazy” and said he did not want to live in an “America that is made up of first class citizens and second class workers.”
Richardson said the presence of so many Democratic candidates demonstrated the political maturity of the Latino population, which is expected to play an unprecedented role in the 2008 presidential election.
A recent USA TODAY/Gallup Poll said U.S. Hispanics, by nearly 3 to 1, are Democrats or lean that way.
Two-thirds of U.S. Hispanics live in states that will hold primary elections to choose presidential nominees on or before February 5, 2008, including Florida, California, New York and Texas. In previous elections, the early primaries that weed out the field of candidates were concentrated in states with only small Latino populations.