North Carolina's Latino population has almost doubled since the beginning of the decade. But that growth hasn't been accompanied by an increase in political power, because only a small percentage of Latinos vote.
It is a disparity some of the state's Hispanic leaders are trying to address.
During a recent shopping trip to a mall in Charlotte, college student Ambar Ramos and her family found something for which they had been searching for quite a while: a place where Ramos could register to vote.
Ramos and her family were at Plaza Fiesta, which caters to Hispanics. On this day, the Latin American Coalition was registering voters. And Ramos – the U.S.-born daughter of undocumented Mexican parents – says her mother led her to the registration table.
"She's been wanting me to vote. Like, as years go by, she's like, 'Oh, I can't wait for you to vote, I can't wait for you to register,'" says Ramos.
Asked why it is so important for her mother that she votes, Ramos says it is because her father had been deported.
"They're fighting for him to come back legally," says Ramos, "and since she can't vote, I guess she wants actually a president that will do something good for immigrants."
Ramos says she is not yet sure for whom she will vote, but Hispanic leaders hope politicians will start paying more attention to voters like her.
Speaking For Their Parents
Ramos is part of a fast-growing demographic in North Carolina's Latino community: young adults born in the United States to immigrant parents. The Latin American Coalition is making a special effort to register them.
Organizer Ruben Campillo has been to high schools and other places where young people hang out. His table at Plaza Fiesta is a few yards from where a Latin rock band is playing.
"For us as a community, I think it's particularly important that we reach out to those young people, because those are the only ones in their family who are now eligible to vote," says Campillo. "Some of their parents may be encouraging them to register and to be a voice for them."
Indeed, the Pew Hispanic Center found that while almost 400,000 adult Latinos live in North Carolina, about 70 percent are ineligible to vote because they are not U.S. citizens. That is the highest percentage of nonvoting Hispanics of any state in the country.
Tony Asion, executive director of the Latino advocacy group El Pueblo, worries Latinos are being marginalized in the political debate.
"One of the things that we're seeing today in North Carolina is a lot of politicians running on an anti-Latino campaign, knowing that these folks can't vote anyway, so you can go ahead and bash them to your heart's content," says Asion.
Immigration A Central Issue
Most state political leaders would dispute the notion that they are "bashing" Latinos, but several have made immigration a central campaign theme. Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.) kicked off her re-election bid with a television commercial spotlighting a federal program designed to deport illegal immigrants who commit crimes.
Dale Folwell was among several Republican state legislators up for re-election who spoke at a small rally in June, declaring illegal immigration a "major crisis."
"I can tell you that there are two things that civilizations never survive," Folwell says in a campaign ad. "That's a devaluation of their currency or a devaluation of their language. And these are two things that Americans are facing."
These politicians say their immigration positions are not anti-Latino. Dole's campaign points out that her advertisement about deporting criminals does not mention any ethnic group.
Meanwhile, Folwell said at the rally that not "everybody who's brown is here illegally." But some audience members were uneasy about the Latino voter drives, especially when it comes to registering U.S.-born children of undocumented parents.
Marion Larabee is a member of the Minutemen, a group that wants Congress to change the Constitution, or have the courts clarify it, so those children would no longer be considered American citizens.
"They should be citizens of where their parents are [from]. And if their parents are illegal, they're illegal. They're illegal right along with their parents. And they have no right to vote. They're taking advantage of our laws, and this is not right," said Larabee.
Community Grows, Strengthens
Latino groups in North Carolina say they hope to register a couple thousand new voters this summer. While that's likely to have only a small effect on this year's election. But Latinos now account for more than half the enrollment in N.C. schools and the Hispanic birth rate continues to rise, foretelling a day when tens of thousands of young Latino-Americans will become eligible to vote.