As U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff addressed a crowd of supporters at a Latino voter registration rally outside Plaza Las Americas in Lilburn on Monday, he touched on an important topic in the Latino community — immigration — by talking about his own mother.

Ossoff’s mother immigrated to the U.S. from Australia and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

“My mother came to this country as an immigrant when she was 23 years old because she believed in America, because she believed that this is a country on a journey of progress,” he told the crowd. “She became a citizen because she recognized that voting is how we make change.”

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In a way, the rally in Lilburn underscored how important Democrats in Georgia have come to see Latino voters as being to their election hopes, particularly with both of the state’s U.S. Senate seats going to runoffs on Jan. 5. Ossoff is facing Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., for one of the seats while Rev. Raphael Warnock is challenging Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., for the other seat.

Former U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro headlined the rally, which also featured state Rep. Pedro Marin, D-Duluth, and Latinx outreach staffers from the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns.

Like Ossoff, Castro talked about an immigrant in his family — in this case his grandmother — and how far his family was able to go in America.

“She worked as a maid, a cook and a babysitter her whole life to give my mother, who was her only child, a better shot at life,” Castro said. “And, just two generations after my grandmother got here, one of her grandsons, my brother Joaquin, was a United States congressman, representing the hometown of San Antonio that she came to, and the other one was serving (President) Barack Obama in the cabinet of the United States.

“That is the beauty of America, and that is the type of America that is on the line.”

Latinos gaining importance as a voting block

The role and importance of African-Americans in the Democratic Party’s voting block has traditionally gotten more press than that of Latinos and Asian-Americans.

But, the runoffs have gained national and international attention, particularly in the aftermath of President-elect Joe Biden’s election. That’s because Democrats could flip control of the Senate away from Republicans if Ossoff and Warnock can beat their incumbent opponents.

With the stakes and national implications being as high as they are in the runoffs, Democrats are courting as many voters as they can, urging members of various ethnic groups to register to vote if they have not already done so.

Marin, who has served in the Georgia House of Representatives for 18 years and was one of the first Latinos elected to the Georgia General Assembly, said the Latino voting block has grown considerably in Georgia since he was first elected. Marin and outgoing state Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, D-Norcross, were co-chairs of the Biden campaign’s Latino outreach committee in Georgia during this year’s presidential campaign.

“When I got elected in 2002, there were less than 20,000 Latino registered voters,” Marin said. “fast forward to 2020, we’ve got over 300,000 Latino registered voters, so we have done a good piece.

“Yes, there’s still hundreds of thousands that haven’t been registered or don’t go out to vote, but that’s a job of organizations out there, that’s the job of the organizers, the canvassers, door knockers and people on the ground that has to do that for us to be able to push that envelop and make sure Latinos (get registered).”

As of Nov. 1, which is the most recent date from which demographic information on registered voters in Georgia is available from the Secretary of State’s Office, there were 54,258 registered voters in Gwinnett County. That is about 9.3% of the 582,917 registered voters in the county.

A possible sign of how much influence the Latino voting bloc has had on recent elections could be the fact that the controversial 287(g) program, where local Sheriff’s offices hold jail inmates who are undocumented residents for U.S. Customs and Immigration officials, was the major issue in the Gwinnett County sheriff’s race this year.

Snellville resident Antonio Molina, who has been active in Democratic circles in Gwinnett for years and ran for Snellville City Council at one point, said that Latinos will be a political force to be reckoned with in the future. That’s due to the growing portion of the population of Gwinnett County — Georgia’s second most populous county — that they make up, he said.

“The reality of our county is that it’s going to be Latino,” Molina said. “With that in mind, as we’ve always said, as so goes Gwinnett, so goes the state. We’ve seen that happen and it’s going to continue to happen. So, that’s why all eyes are on our community to make sure that our youth, our future, is well-informed and participates in the process.”

‘More Latino power’

Several people in the crowd at the rally in Lilburn on Monday held signs, some of which were homemade, that were in Spanish. One such sign, for example, included the phrase, “Una mayoria Democrata = Mas Poder Latino,” which roughly translates to “A Democratic majority = More Latino power.”

A day after the Nov. 3 election, the UCLA Latino Policy and Politics Initiative said Biden got 75% of the votes cast in Gwinnett County election precincts that had high concentrations of Latino residents — although county elections officials were still counting ballots from the election at that time.

Marin said the rally on Monday — which was the last day for Georgians to register to vote in the Jan. 5 Senate runoff election — was a key opportunity to show young Latinos why it is important for them to be involved in the political process.

“Politics plays a big role in everybody’s life at the local, the state and the federal, so today (Monday), I think they’re understanding ow important this race coming up on Jan. 5 (is), so we can change the way this country has been going for the last four years,” Marin said.

But, Molina conceded that not all Latino voters back Democrats. There are a number of Latinos in Georgia, such as former state Rep. David Casas and Loganville Mayor Rey Martinez, who are Republicans. Lou Solis, who was the Republican nominee for Gwinnett County sheriff this year, is also a member of the Latino community.

“Obviously, we’re not a monolithic group,” he said. “But, I will tell you that, in this state, based on the treatment that our community has gotten from the Republican Party, we definitely align more with the Democratic Party because it’s the party that opened its doors to us and allowed us the opportunity to look after our interests and after our families.”

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