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Obama's choice of Las Vegas for immigration speech is a love letter to Latinos

U.S. President Barack Obama meets with representatives from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major Counties Sheriffs Association at the White House on January 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Barack Obama meets with representatives from the Major Cities Chiefs Association and Major Counties Sheriffs Association at the White House on January 28, 2013 in Washington, DC.
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President Obama travels to Las Vegas today to outline his proposals for changing the current immigration system. So what makes Vegas and the middle of the Mojave Desert the soapbox of choice for a seminal speech on immigration? Adam Burke from the Fronteras Desk explains

President Barack Obama is scheduled to speak in Las Vegas on Tuesday to offer his ideas on immigration reform. And while some might see the middle of the Mojave Desert as an odd place for a seminal speech on immigration, Las Vegas may be the perfect soapbox.

Nevada is home to some 190,000 undocumented immigrants -- some of them politically active. Take 49-year-old Marisa Espinosa, for example, who works low-paying jobs making fast food, and cleaning houses. Last fall, Espinosa helped Barack Obama win in Nevada.

"He was my hope," she said. "For me and for a lot of undocumented people.”

Espinosa canvassed neighborhoods. She worked at phone banks. And she rallied other undocumented immigrants. When undocumented people told her they were powerless to act because they have no vote, her response was:

"Maybe you have a friend, a neighbor, family, that they are citizens. And they know how you are working hard for this country. Just tell them: you know vote. Vote. Because you can be my voice, you can help me, getting my papers.”

Espinosa was part of a successful grassroots mobilization that brought a record number of Latinos to the polls in Nevada. Some 80 percent of Nevada Latinos voted for Obama.

And as he delivers his remarks on Tuesday in Las Vegas, Obama will be reaching out to a constituency here that he and the Democrats need.

"Nevada’s Latino community is a perfect microcosm of the people that president Obama needs to be speaking to about what his case is and why this matters so much," said Andres Ramirez, a Democratic Party organizer and consultant in Las Vegas.

“If you look at the Hispanic population in Nevada, it’s very representative of what it is, nationally," Ramirez said. "The breakdown of Hispanics between Mexicans and Cubans and Central and South Americans. And also between those that are citizens, non-citizens and those that are undocumented.”

President Obama’s decision to speak in Nevada is many things. It’s part love letter to the Latino voters who helped hand him a second term. It’s part policy -- a chance to outline the big pieces of the bipartisan legislative effort that seems to be close at hand. And it’s political stagecraft in the Southwest, a region that’s become increasingly significant to the Democratic Party over the last decade.

David Damore a political scientist based at the University of Nevada Las Vegas, and an analyst with the research polling group Latino Decisions, said the Southwest is important ground for Democrats.

“You see the shift in the Democratic Party to really compete in this region, Damore said. "Trying to secure the Latino vote going forward. Not just here but obviously Colorado, New Mexico, and eventually Arizona here. So there’s a great deal of political significance to this region for the Democratic Party."

Some Republicans will be looking to ride the president’s coattails too. Damore points to recent polling data that shows nearly half of Latino voters don’t affiliate strongly with either party.

"If the Republican was to help pass comprehensive immigration reform, with a pathway to citizenship, Latino voters would give them a second look," Damore said. "This then would give the Republicans the opportunity to promote some of the other issues that have largely gotten drowned out, because of the saliency of the immigration issue within the Latino community."

But this is the President’s moment at the bully pulpit. And Damore said one of Obama's targets will be first-time voters. In Nevada, some 40 percent of Latinos who voted had never voted before. And if these new voters credit the Democratic Party with bringing home immigration reform, that could be a huge win for Democrats.

"This could create a strong identification between younger Latino voters and the Democratic Party moving forward," Damore said.

So in his speech, President Obama will attempt to cement the Democratic party’s relationship with a generation of new Latino voters, while hitting all the right notes for the rest of the country.