LAS VEGAS (AP) — President Barack Obama's choice of a Las Vegas high school to launch his immigration reform effort Tuesday illustrated yet again the way Latinos are reshaping Nevada's political landscape.
The president flew to the Mojave Desert to hold a campaign-style event aimed at drawing support for his proposal to give millions of illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship. He spoke at Del Sol High School, where Latinos account for 58 percent of the student body.
During the first trip of his second term, Obama praised a plan unveiled by a bipartisan group of senators the day before, and led the audience of 2,000 in chants of "USA!" and "Si se puede!"
Latinos now make up more than a quarter of the Nevada population. Illegal immigrants account for 7 percent of residents, more than any other state, according to a 2011 Pew Hispanic Center study.
During the boom years before the recession hit, Las Vegas became a major entry point for people seeking a better life, according to Vicenta Montoya, leader of the Si Se Puede Latino Democratic Caucus in Las Vegas.
"We have such a high immigrant community, and it's not just Mexican, it's African, it's Asian," she said. "This is a hub for immigration because until recently, this was an easy place to get into the U.S. workforce."
After the speech, high school seniors in formal attire talked excitedly in clumps, ignoring teachers who shooed them to sixth period.
Maria Manzo, whose parents brought her to the U.S from Mexico as a toddler, said Obama's proposal could allow her realize her dream of joining the National Guard and becoming a registered nurse.
"I felt this warm feeling that he's finally going to do something for us for our families," she said.
Her friend Jessie Barajas, 18, chimed in, explaining that she has citizenship but her parents and siblings do not.
"It feels like our families were living under a rock, and now that is going to change," she said.
The Clark County school district, which serves Las Vegas, is now a majority-minority district, with Latino students making up 42 percent of the student body. Latinos make up a plurality of students statewide.
The Latino voting population has been steadily climbing and coalescing into a formidable battleground state voting bloc.
Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, competed strenuously for Nevada's six electoral votes last year. Obama supporters dramatically outspent Romney on Spanish-language television and aired an ad in which the president made his pitch speaking entirely in Spanish.
In the end, as many as 4 out of 5 of the state's 270,000 Latino voters supported Obama, according to exit polling.
Latino voters are also credited with helping Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prove pollsters wrong and win a narrow victory over tea party candidate Sharron Angle in 2010.
Caesars Entertainment CEO Gary Loveman was among the local powerbrokers who attended Obama's speech.
He told The Associated Press that while casino moguls Steve Wynn and Sheldon Adelson may have made headlines during the 2012 campaign with their support of Republican candidates and causes, the gambling industry is likely to embrace the president's proposal.
"The casino industry, Sheldon's company notwithstanding, is very heavily unionized. We've tended to support the position of our unions and we've seen this issue the same way, and favored this kind of proposal," he said.
Illegal immigrants make up 10 percent of the state's workforce, which is driven in part by the construction and hospitality trades, according to the Pew Hispanic Center study.
Among the strongest of Nevada's generally powerful unions is Culinary Workers Local 226, a fast-growing organization made up of predominantly immigrant hotel and casino employees.
Del Sol parent Glenda Marcos, 57, wiped away tears as the president spoke. Afterward, she said she felt lucky to have lived to see this day.
"My husband just passed away in November," said Marcos, who emigrated from Ecuador in the 1970s and now owns a small business near the school. "He couldn't vote because he was in the hospital, but he saw Obama get re-elected on TV. If he had been here, he would have been screaming and crying."
Hannah Dreier can be reached at http://twitter.com/hannahdreier