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‘Tequila Party’ Rallies Hispanics

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Rep. Lamar Smith offered a bill Tuesday to require businesses to check the citizenship of new hires. Tequila Party organizers plan protests against it.

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Its cheeky name aside, the Tequila Party has a serious mission.

The newly formed grass-roots group sprouted from a growing frustration among Hispanic voters that neither party is doing much to help the nation's immigrant population and that the tea parties have turned the tide against them.

Rather than swear allegiance to one party or the other, Tequila Party members said they plan to form a Hispanic voting bloc so strong that they can no longer be ignored.

"We're not telling anybody how to vote. We don't care, because we do bad anyway at the polls. Right now, we need to get over that hurdle," said DeeDee Garcia Blase, the group's founder and president.

The lifelong Republican recently dropped her party affiliation to protest
Republican-led immigration enforcement measures in her home state of Arizona.

"It's sad that GOP leaders will not work more aggressively to become a catalyst to the Republican moderates," said Blase, a veteran who was drawn to the Republican Party during her military service. "Latin Republicans who were typically lifelong Republicans are concerned about losing the party."

Earlier this month in Tucson, Ariz., she kicked off a Tequila Party tour that is expected to hit 20 states and draw similarly frustrated Hispanics of all political persuasions. The next stop is expected to be in Wichita, Kan., on July 30.

The Tequila Party has already drawn dozens of activists, including Iowa Republican Bob Quasius.

"Democrats take the Latino community for granted, and Republicans tend to assume that Latinos don't vote or that they always vote Democrat," Quasius said. "We think both parties' perceptions of Latinos need to be fairly shaken up."

Like many Hispanics, Quasius remains a Republican because of his social and religious values. But when it comes to immigration, he has more in common with Democrats such as Nevada Tequila Party leader Fernando Romero.

Both are frustrated with the stalemate in Washington, D.C., where immigration has become a partisan issue. They say that is not the case in the Hispanic community: Support for comprehensive immigration reform cuts across party lines.

"Most of us who are Hispanic have a friend, a cousin, a parent, a son or daughter who is undocumented," Romero said.

Yet voter turnout remains low among Hispanics. In 2010, Hispanics accounted for 16 percent of the national population but just 7 percent of voters, according to the Pew Research Center. Part of that gap is a growing population of Hispanic youth.

With its festive name, the Tequila Party aims to attract younger voters and those who have been less engaged in politics. Though it opposes the tea parties, which generally take a hard line against undocumented immigrants, the Tequila Party plans to use similar protest tactics to galvanize the grass roots.

"We're the new blood," Blase said. "I think it's imperative for us to make voting sexy to the up-and-coming age of voters. ... The youth think [the name] is cool. In their minds, they think tequila is stronger than tea."

She distinguished her efforts from those of traditional advocacy groups such as the National Council of La Raza, Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund and League of United Latin American Citizens.

"I appreciate what they have done, but the people that are running those organization are like my mom and dad — the older generation," she said.

The suspicion appears to be mutual. Brent Wilkes, executive director of the League of United Latin American Citizens, said he worries the Tequila Party may be out to undermine the Hispanic vote.

"I'm suspicious that the whole thing is designed to make the Latino vote less relevant," Wilkes said.

He cited a Republican ad that ran in Nevada during the midterm elections, which called on Hispanics to stay home on Election Day to protest lack of legislative action on immigration reform.

But it was the Republican group Latinos for Reform, not the Tequila Party, behind that campaign.

Angela M. Kelley, vice president for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the liberal Center for American Progress, said she expects more conservatives to distance themselves from the GOP as its members roll out enforcement measures led by House Judiciary Chairman Lamar Smith.

The Texas Republican introduced a bill Tuesday that would require companies to check the legal status of new hires against a central database. Groups opposed to it say it could be costly to businesses and unfairly target ethnic minorities.

"There are a lot of conservative Hispanics who also find this offensive. They realize they're going to be bearing the brunt of these kind of programs," Kelley said.

The Tequila Party already has plans to hold nationwide protests against Smith's E-Verify bill.

"The Republican Party, if they continue to do what they are doing now, they're going to lose a generation like the Democrats did in the South during the civil rights era," Blase said.

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