Idea for Hispanic district debated

Group says aliens’ numbers would rise

Secure Arkansas is an anti-illegal immigrant advocacy group. An article in Thursday’s editions about a proposed Hispanic-majority legislative district incorrectly described Secure Arkansas.

— Anti-immigrant advocacy group Secure Arkansas came out against creating a primarily Hispanic legislative district Wednesday and said doing so would increase the number of illegal aliens and increase benefits for welfare recipients.

“They will elect an Hispanic legislator which will to us mean looking down the road to more Hispanic legislators, more welfare recipients,” Chairman Jeannie Burlsworth said by phone. “This is just pandering to illegals.”

Tuesday night Secure Arkansas sent a “high priority emergency” e-mail to its members about a meeting scheduled between the constitutional officers responsible for redrawing the legislative districts and lawmakers who support creating a majority district for the growing Hispanic population in Northwest Arkansas.

The e-mail focused on a letter from Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville.

Collins said Wednesday that the letter was a draft and had not been sent to the Board of Apportionment.

But there was a meeting, which also was attended by other lawmakers, along with about a dozen Hispanic community leaders.

Responsibility for drawing the state’s 135 legislative districts belongs to the Arkansas Board of Apportionment, made up of the governor, the secretary of state and the attorney general.

The board is scheduled to vote on new legislative districts at 9:30 a.m. July 29 at the state Capitol. Draft versions of maps of the new districts should be available by 4 p.m. July 19 on the board’s website, www.arkansasredistricting.org.The meeting was held in the office of the board’s director, Joe Woodson. He said by phone after the meeting that he told the group that all three board members are considering a majority Hispanic district but he can’t guarantee that one will be on the final map.

“They’re interested in seeing a minority House district drawn in basically the Springdale area,” Wood-son said of those who attended the meeting.

The 2010 Census showed that Arkansas’ Hispanic population grew from 3.2 percent of the state’s population in 2000 to 6.4 percent, or 186,050, in 2010.

The 1965 federal Voting Rights Act specifies that states cannot use the redistricting process to dilute the voting strength of minority communities.

The act tries to prevent splitting a minority community so that it can’t vote as a bloc. It also prohibits concentrating a minority community in such a way that its chance of electing a candidate of its choice in other districts is reduced.

Creating legislative districts where a minority group makes up a majority of the population is not new to the state. Arkansas currently has 17 majority black districts located in east, south and central Arkansas.

The number of black Arkansans dropped from 15.58 percent of the population in 2000 to 15.33 percent in 2010.

Collins said he wants to make sure the Voting Rights Act is applied fairly to Hispanics.

“It was important in my view that we think very seriously about how the Voting Rights Act would affect this new group whose population was growing,” he said. “Hispanic citizens are going to be a big, big part of the future and it’s important that we realize that. I just want to make sure that we as Republicans have our eyes on that.”

Burlsworth questioned the idea.

“Is that way the lines should be redrawn, based on ethnicity?” she said.

Secure Arkansas has failed in two attempts to get a proposed constitutional amendment restricting public services for illegal aliens on the ballot.

“There’s a lot that could come out of this if you look on down the line,” Burlsworth said. “What we believe is, that’s going to promote the interest of welfare recipients. It’s very disturbing because we’re thinking Republicans are supposed to stand for fiscal responsibility.”

The board has received a handful of letters about creating a majority-Hispanic district in the Northwest, most of which have been against the idea.

Richard Eggert of Bella Vista sent an undated letter to the board stating that racial divisions should not be used to create legislative districts.

“The best way to insure a continuation of, and an increase in, racial discrimination in the state of Arkansas is to create an Hispanic, black, Marshallese, white or other racial legislative district in the state,” Eggert wrote.

Northwest Arkansas is home to a large population that immigrated from the Marshall Islands or descended from Marshallese immigrants.

Republican Party Chairman Doyle Webb said Wednesday by e-mail that Hispanic voters relate to the Republican Party best.

“Hispanic Arkansans are growing in population and we would not object to a Hispanic district if by law one is warranted,” Webb said.

Democratic Party spokesman Candace Martin said whether to create a majority Hispanic district is up to the board.

“Considering the population growth of Hispanics particularly in Northwest Arkansas, the possibility of a Hispanic minority-majority is very real, but that is a decision that will ultimately be left to the Board of Apportionment,” Martin said.

Arkansas, Pages 9 on 07/07/2011