By Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A drive to register 250,000 new Latino voters in the run-up to this year's mid-term elections was unveiled on Thursday by groups that have been clamoring for the U.S. Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform legislation.
"Our work is to support our community in having a stronger voice in the political process, particularly the policy debate process," said Clarissa Martinez De Castro, director of immigration at the National Council of La Raza.
De Castro said a coalition of Latino groups is aiming to raise $5 million this year from various non-profit donors to fuel the voter registration drive. Already, $3 million has been collected, she told reporters at a press conference.
The January launch of the voter registration drive is about six or seven months earlier than efforts in past election cycles, according to officials, giving them more time to organize before the fall campaigns when all 435 House of Representatives districts, 36 Senate seats and 36 governors' races will be in play.
The push also comes amid divisions among Republicans across the country over immigration reform and whether any new legislation should include a pathway to citizenship for some of the 11 million undocumented people currently living in the United States.
Last June, in a strong bipartisan vote, the U.S. Senate approved a major rewrite of federal immigration law, which was last revamped in 1986.
But the effort stalled in the Republican-controlled House, which has emphasized the need for better border controls and clamping down on illegal hiring by U.S. companies before tackling broader immigration issues.
SEVEN STATES TARGETED
House Republican leaders in coming days are aiming to unveil a set of "principles" to guide any immigration debate this year. It is unclear when legislation might be unveiled.
De Castro said the voter registration effort initially will focus on seven states: Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Colorado, Oklahoma and Utah.
The rapidly growing population of Latino citizens in the United States increasingly has been flexing its political muscle.
President Barack Obama won more than 70 percent of their votes in his successful 2012 re-election, a major setback to the Republican Party, which tried to court Latino votes when George W. Bush ran for president in 2000 and continuing through his two terms in the White House.
Bush tried to advance immigration reform legislation but it faltered twice in the Senate.
The National Council of La Raza, using U.S. Census data, estimated that every year, more than 877,000 Hispanic children who are citizens turn 18 years old - the minimum age for voting in U.S. elections. Between 2011 and 2028 that would add up to 15.8 million new Latino voters, it said.
At least for now, Republicans are favored to maintain their control of the U.S. House in November's elections, but party leaders worry that if they fail to adequately address immigration, they will suffer in their 2016 bid to capture the White House.
If House Speaker John Boehner goes ahead with major immigration legislation this year, it could take most or all of 2014 before the outcome is decided.
(Editing by Eric Walsh)