The Hispanic vote is a growing force in Arizona that could be of critical importance, not only for ending the anti-immigrant rhetoric in the state, but also as a key to electing the next president of the United States.

"The Hispanic vote will be crucial in the presidential elections," Luis Heredia, chairman of the Arizona Democratic Party, told Efe, recalling that in 2008 the majority of his state's Hispanics backed Barack Obama.

"This time we know it will take a lot of phone calls and a great deal of effort, but I'm convinced that thanks to the Hispanic vote, President Obama will win the state of Arizona," Heredia said.

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In the last presidential elections, Obama won 56 percent of Arizona's Latino vote against 41 percent for his Republican rival, Arizona Sen. John McCain, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The 2010 Census showed that Hispanics represent 29.6 percent of the Arizona population, a proportion exceeded only in New Mexico, California and Texas.

Pew estimates that 18 percent of Arizona's registered voters are Hispanic, while 39 percent of the Hispanic population in this state are eligible to vote.

"I think we have a chance to win a seat in the Senate this year - Arizona voters have to help ensure a Democratic majority in Congress," Heredia said.

Luis Avila, director of the pro-immigrant group Somos America (We Are America), told Efe that the Hispanic vote was of prime importance last November in a special election that ousted state Sen. Russell Pearce, chief promoter of Arizona's harsh SB 1070 immigration law.

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The measure, which was reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court last April, was the first to criminalize the presence of undocumented immigrants in this country.

"For many years we saw the Hispanic vote ignored in Pearce's district, yet it was fundamental in defeating him," Avila said.

The activist believes this shows that when community organizations work with a clear strategy, they can mobilize the Hispanic vote.

The way Latinos vote will also be important in Maricopa County when its controversial Sheriff Joe Arpaio seeks reelection.

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The U.S. Department of Justice said in December that it had found instances of racial profiling used against Hispanic drivers by Arpaio's department.

Avila thinks the media make a mistake in always associating the federal government's lack of action on immigration reform with the indifference of Hispanics toward voting in the coming elections.

"In fact, as survey after survey has shown, Hispanics are also interested in other issues like education, public safety and jobs - I believe such subjects are being capitalized by different organizations nationwide to get out the Hispanic vote," Avila said.

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