Latino Identity Politics and Immigration Payback

Tom Barry, Novemeber 19, 2008
Over the past several years, pro-immigrant groups, Latino organizations, and Democratic Party-linked institutes in Washington have been on the same page about immigration and politics. Basically, it's been a politics of numbers—bringing the growing number of Latinos and immigrants into the Democratic Party.

As best articulated by NDN, the successor to the New Democratic Movement, the future of politics in America is closely tied to the new demographics that put a new premium on winning the political loyalty of the rapidly rising Latino population. In its Hispanics Rising II report, NDN makes the case that the future of the Democratic Party depends on capturing the Latino electorate.

In Hispanics Rising, NDN argues that Latinos are the country's most important swing voting bloc:

"Fueled by huge waves of recent immigration from throughout the Americas, the rapid growth of the Hispanic community is one of the great American demographic stories of the 21st century. At 15% of the U.S. population today, Hispanics are now America's largest 'minority' group, and are projected to be 29% of all those living in the United States by 2050. A majority of Hispanic adults in the United States today are immigrants.

"Recognizing that it will be hard to build a 21st century political majority without this fast-growing electorate, Hispanics have become one of the most volatile and contested swing voting blocs in American politics."

Pre-Election Mobilization

With the Republican Party struggling to maintain its base of evangelicals, social conservatives, and anti-immigrant activists, the Democrats and their allies in immigrant advocacy groups, selected labor unions, and Latino groups like National Council of La Raza have focused in the past several years on expanding the Latino and immigrant voting bloc, particularly in swing states like New Mexico, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada.

Paralleling the vote-registering and get-out-the-vote campaigns of the Obama team and the National Democratic Party, Latino groups, immigrant organizations, and Spanish-language media companies joined a national campaign to register Latinos and new citizens. The national campaign, called "Ya Es Hora, Ve Y Vota," which means "Now is the time, go and vote," targeted the million-plus new citizens and the many Latinos who had never voted. The campaign echoed the immigrant rights slogan of the immigrant marches in 2006 and 2007: "Today We March, Tomorrow We Vote."

Among the groups involved were the National Council of La Raza, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, We Are America Alliance, Mi Familia Vota Educational Fund, and Democracia USA.

The We Are America Alliance, which says it registered some 500,000 new voters, includes more than a dozen immigrant rights organizations around the country, including Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Center for Community Change, National Capitol Immigration Coalition, and Americas Voice. A few unions, including UNITE Here and SEIU, are also part of the alliance.

Immigrants Mean More Democrats

Bolstered by the unprecedented turnout of Latino voters—as many as 10 million—and their two to one support for Barack Obama and other Democrats, most of these groups are now demanding that the Democratic Congress and the Obama administration move quickly to approve a comprehensive immigration reform bill that includes legalization.

Clearly, if political trends continue, the Democratic Party stands to benefit hugely from the naturally growing Latino population in the United States. The legalization of 11 million new immigrants would likely cement the party's position as the majority party for decades to come. While not explicitly stated, at least not publicly, this possible infusion of millions of new Latino voters is central to the long-term political strategy of NDN and its associates in the Democratic Party.

An active supporter of the failed Kennedy-McCain immigration reform bill in 2006, NDN remains optimistic about comprehensive reform. Its website points to deep support in Congress for liberal reform: "Few issues facing the 110th Congress have the support that comprehensive immigration reform has. Not only does the majority of the Legislative branch support it, but President Bush is one of its strongest advocates."

Pointing the favorable demographics for Democrats, NDN has advocated, with scant success, that Democratic candidates embrace legalization. "Embracing Comprehensive Immigration Reform as a pragmatic, effective way to fix the broken immigration system can be a winning issue for candidates and elected officials," declares NDN.

In a post-election analysis, NDN president Simon Rosenberg observed: " There can be no doubt now that the GOP's handling of the immigration issue has been one of the greatest mistakes in the last 50 years of American politics. Our advice to the GOP is work with the Democrats to pass comprehensive immigration reform in 2009."

Many groups are now saying that, given the election results, the Democratic Party has a debt with Latinos. NDN apparently believes that continued Latino loyalty will depend on the party's commitment to immigration reform. "Let's not forget, Obama's victory among Hispanics may still be short-lived if he does not follow through on his promises to this community," warned an NDN blogger.

Immigration Reform a "Threshold Issue"

Joining the post-election maneuvering for immigration reform, immigrant rights groups are throwing down the gauntlet, asserting that the new administration and Congress have no choice but to support legalization given the surge of Latino voters for Democrats.

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said that the record number of Latino and immigrant voters " created a clear mandate for immigration reform and economic security for all Americans."

But the organization's message of congratulations for President-elect Obama also contained a warning. What Latinos and immigrant voters give, they can take away—if immigration reform is not a priority.

"Our new President should not take for granted the support of the immigrant vote," said Noorani, "because it is not an unconditional support. Unless we move beyond the stalemate toward a pragmatic approach to fix our broken immigration system through a workable solution that is tough, fair, and realistic, then the new American vote will swing the other way."

Tacitly acknowledging that immigration was not a top concern of most Latino or other voting constituencies, Noorani and other immigrant advocates argue, however, that immigration reform is a "threshold issue" for Latinos and "New Americans." "This group—who along with their children born in the United States since 1965 are considered 'new American voters'—also views immigration as a threshold issue," said Noorani.

Pointing to the losses of immigrant-bashing candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-NC) and Hazelton mayor Lou Barletta in Pennsylvania, America's Voice declared that "new voters are redrawing America's political map, and policy makers who don't get it could end up on the wrong side of history. "

Also calling immigration a "threshold issue" for many Latino voters, executive director of America's Voice, Frank Sharry, said that immigration reform will be key if Democrats expect to hold on to the Latino and New American vote. "Candidates who define themselves as in favor of common sense immigration reform win their races," asserted Sharry, adding that "neither party will want to go into the next presidential race with immigration reform unresolved."

Paco Fabian of America's Voice predicted that "after election day, these new voters will get to work pressing for immigration reform. This has made the extremists who've dominated immigration politics very nervous about what's coming: a newly organized powerhouse demanding that Washington deliver real, comprehensive immigration reform."

At a Nov. 11 press conference in Washington, DC, Fair Immigration Reform Movement, a project of the Center for Community Change in Washington, DC, announced plans for a protest rally on the mall the day after Obama's inauguration. The coalition of immigrant-rights organizations, unions, and other grassroots organizations are demanding immigration reform, an end to work-site raids, and a suspension of the plans by Homeland Security to have letters sent to employers when Social Security numbers of employees don't match.

"We voted in the millions, and now we're going to demand progress in the millions," said Angelica Salas, director of one of the allied organizations, the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

Another clear expression of identity politics and the kind of payback mentality that have polluted the Democratic Party came from prominent Latino journalist Ruben Navarrette, columnist for the San Diego Union-Tribune, who commented: "It's true that President-elect Obama owes Latinos an enormous debt for giving him two-thirds of their votes." Navarrette predicts that Obama "will probably toss Latino supporters a bone or two, but nothing else." Not comprehensive immigration reform, and "if Latinos are paying attention and holding the new president to account, they'll know they've been used. And, if honest with themselves, they'll have something else to be disgusted about," advised Navarrette.

The National Council of La Raza was more circumspect about assessing the role of immigration in the Latino vote. "Latino and new citizen voters turned out in record numbers, motivated by a desire to see a stronger economy, better jobs, and access to quality education and healthcare," NCLR's president Janet Murguía said. "They were also energized by the urgency of seeing immigration reform enacted and to voice their opposition to demeaning and dehumanizing rhetoric in the immigration debate."

Reality Check

No doubt that Latinos and immigrants voted in unprecedented numbers for Democrats on Nov. 4. And it is undoubtedly true that the anti-immigrant policies and practices advocated by many Republican politicians and by the Bush administration over the past couple of years factored into the move by Latinos into the Democratic Party.

But the post-election declarations claiming that immigration reform is a threshold issue for Latinos, that the general election indicated broad support for liberal immigration reform, and that Latinos and immigrants will withdraw their support for Democrats if they don't deliver on immigration reform leave much room for doubt and questions.

The argument that immigration reform is a threshold issue for Latinos and "New Americans" implies this "swing voting bloc" defines its political identity and future around this issue. But neither exit polls nor other attitude surveys support this contention. While pro-immigration and immigrant-rights groups acknowledge that the economy was the top concern of voters, they contend that immigration reform remained a core issue for Latinos and the New Americans—one that drove them to the polls in large numbers and will determine their future loyalty to the Democratic Party.

The Pew Hispanic Center in its 2008 National Survey of Latinos: Hispanic Voter Attitudes, which was conducted in June (three months before the financial collapse) and released in July, found that "Latino registered voters rank education, the cost of living, jobs, and healthcare as the most important issues in the fall campaign, with crime lagging a bit behind those four, and the war in Iraq and immigration still farther behind."

Furthermore, "The movement to the Democrats appears driven in part by an overall dissatisfaction with the state of the country—70% of Latino registered voters say the country is going in the wrong direction—and also with a growing view among Latino voters that the Democratic Party is better attuned to the concerns of their community."

The contention that Latinos and new immigrants are a "newly organized powerhouse" that will mobilize to support liberal immigration reform seems more hopeful than real. While Latinos and immigrant voters undoubtedly favor legalization to a greater degree than the overall voting population, this doesn't necessarily mean that they believe it should be a priority for the new administration or that they will reconsider their support for the Democratic Party if a liberal reform package isn't passed in the next four years.

Obama speaking at National Council of La Raza Convention/Union-Tribune

NDN, America's Voice, and others cite the polling by the Democratic Party's in-house Latino pollster Sergio Bendixen to support claims that there is intense and widespread support for comprehensive immigration reform. NDN, which commissioned the poll on Sept. 10, said it "shows overwhelming public support for comprehensive immigration reform in the key battleground states of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida."

But the question asked those surveyed was not if they supported legislation to legalize illegal immigrants. Rather it was if they supported comprehensive immigration reform. As the polling results noted, "Different groups and individuals use the term 'Comprehensive Immigration Reform' to mean very different things." In this case, NDN commissioned the Bendixen firm to define comprehensive reform in the harsh yet expansive terms that it encouraged the Democratic Party to adopt in its 2008 party platform.

Here's the question as framed by NDN: "Would you support or oppose a comprehensive immigration reform that strengthens border security, sets up an employment verification plan, establishes serious criminal penalties for employers that hire illegal workers, creates a new visa program for 200,000 workers annually, substantially increases the number of family visas available for the immediate relatives of legal immigrants, and grants illegal immigrants conditional legal status for six years and then a path to permanent residency and citizenship if they meet certain requirements?"

The poll showed that 66-69% of those surveyed in the four states (rising to 75-79% for Hispanics) supported such a comprehensive reform package. Legalization, rather than being a centerpiece of this package, is surrounded by other measures variously designed to appeal to different groups—border security and criminalizing hiring of illegal workers for those favoring enforcement solutions, and new worker visa program and substantially increased family visas for those favoring more legal immigration.

And rather than legalization, the package provides only a highly conditioned pathway to citizenship—hardly a strong expression of support for legalizing the country's undocumented population of 11 million.

Sober Assessment of New Political Climate Needed

Without doubt the Republican Party received a trouncing in the Nov. 4 elections. But the elections didn't signal a surge of support for liberal immigration reform or a total rejection of the ongoing immigrant crackdown. The electoral losses of Senator Elizabeth Dole and Mayor Lou Barletta were gratifying to all those who rejected their immigrant bashing.

But a more sober assessment of the election results by pro-immigration groups would show that the candidates that beat Dole and Barletta cannot necessarily be counted on to back a liberal reform bill. While the pro-immigration groups were congratulating themselves for the Democratic Party sweep and the defeat of some hard-line Republicans, immigration restrictionists are pointing to their victories in Arizona and elsewhere.

Arizona voters roundly defeated Proposition 202, which would have rolled back the state's law that stipulates penalties and the de-licensing of businesses employing illegal immigrants. The victory of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the flamboyant crusader against illegal immigrants in the Phoenix area, along with his partner in the aggressive countywide crackdown, County Attorney Andrew Thomas, also demonstrated, they said, that anti-immigration sentiment remained strong, even in a state with a large constituency (29% of population) of Latino voters.

The anti-immigration forces were also pointing to a new anti-immigrant initiative in Oregon's Columbia County, where voters approved a measure that would clamp down on businesses that employed illegal workers. Even in the defeat of Dole and Barletta, restrictionists found evidence that their anti-immigration agenda was moving forward, noting that Cong. Paul Kanjorksi (D-PA) had in the last year adopted a much harder line on illegal immigrants and Senator-elect Kay Hagan (D-NC) was a strong supporter of local-federal cooperation in immigration enforcement.

Similarly, most of the freshmen members of the 111th Congress aren't committed to legalization and do support immigration law enforcement.

Immigration Reform as Special Interest or Common Good

One reading of the Obama victory is that it signaled the end to the tradition of special interests and identity politics in the Democratic Party. Instead of a party pieced together from various interest groups, the party of many tents is becoming a big tent where all are welcome if they believe in progressive change. Rather than responding to the special interests of various constituencies, the Obama administration will act for the common good. At least, that is what many who voted for Obama expect and hope for.

However, immediately after the election, Beltway organizations began to lobby for their particular causes and interests. As observed, "Unions, Hispanic groups, the Netroots, progressive organizing coalitions, single women, working women, youth, the religious left—to name just a few— all claim to have played a vital role in electing Barack Obama."

The common good can, of course, be served by groups and movements that advocate for their particular concerns. But the representatives of traditional Democratic constituencies, such as teachers, unions, pro-immigration groups, and African-American groups, may find that a Democratic Congress or administration no longer reflexively responds to their demands—especially if those demands are framed as special interests rather than ones that serve the common good.

Does it make good political sense, then, to promote immigration reform as a special interest of Latinos and New Americans? Should the Democratic Party expect Republicans to join in immigration reform when it is being framed explicitly as a political strategy to increase the Democratic base? Does it make sense to heed the advice of NDN and others in the Democratic Party to chart a political future in which Latinos are treated as a special voting bloc that demands special treatment?

With respect to immigration reform, such questions aren't merely conceptual or about long-term political strategy. It's an immediate reality check. With the economy tanking and hundreds of thousands of jobs disappearing every month, can immigrant advocates who advocate liberal immigration reform really expect that the new Congress and new administration will respond to their demands simply because they say they represent the interests of the 6.7 million Latinos who voted for Obama? Especially when the top concerns of those voters were the economy and jobs?

The argument for immigration reform, if it is to be persuasive, has to be more than "you owe us because we voted for you." By resorting to the old politics of identity and voting blocs, the pro-immigration movement risks marginalizing itself in the new political environment.

What is more, by asserting that immigration reform is a threshold issue for Latinos and New Americans, immigration advocates risk alienating themselves from their own base. Not to say that immigration reform is not a concern of Latinos and citizen immigrants. But rather that Latinos and immigrants, like African Americans, want to be represented for who they are—workers, parents, retirees, homeowners, community members who share the concerns of all Americans—not one-dimensional cutouts who have one issue, respond to that issue the same way, and consider that issue a special interest rather than one of common public concern.

In this regard, the immigration restrictionists are way ahead of the pro-immigration groups. Rather than approaching immigration reform in the same way they have during the Bush administration, they already have reframed their messaging to reflect the new economic concerns and to parallel the core promises of the Obama campaign and transition team.

Roy Beck, who heads NumbersUSA, said: "Whatever the Obama campaign may have said about immigration before the stock market crash, his priorities have clearly changed and immigration policy will have to serve as his top priority of getting American workers back into jobs that offer decent wages and benefits, especially health insurance."

Dan Stein, director of the Federation For American Immigration Reform (FAIR), told the media: "At a time when the economy is faltering, when nearly a million Americans have lost their jobs this year alone, when federal, state, and local governments are facing unprecedented deficits, President Obama will need to institute and enforce immigration policies that do not add to these problems."

FAIR's Stein called for Obama to "put forward a coherent immigration policy that recognizes that reforming immigration is critical to getting our economy back on track."

In contrast to the sharply focused jobs-and-economy argument that is being aggressively promoted by NumbersUSA, FAIR, and other restrictionist groups, the pro-immigration camp has yet to emerge from its pre-election focus on getting out the Latino and immigrant vote.

Immigrant-rights, pro-immigration, and Latino groups all but ignore the jobs issue when calling for liberal immigration reform. What worked as an electoral strategy to increase Latino support for the Democratic Party will likely fall flat at a time when a unity message is trumping special interests and identity politics. The Obama campaign unleashed the power of the Latinos, African Americans, and the so-called "New Americans," but its central, albeit unstated, message was that's what is good for the common good is what is also good for the various interest groups.

What's missing is a post-election strategy that goes beyond ethnicity and immigration status to appeal not just to Latinos and immigrants but to all Americans.

If immigration reform is to go beyond instituting new enforcement mechanisms to providing a pathway to citizenship, advocates will need to start explaining how it will serve the common good. Whenever they call for reform, they must tell us how immigrants boost the economy, don't lower the net number of jobs available to citizens, and will increase their contributions to economy and society once legalized.

The economic bottom line of immigration reform can't be ignored, as immigrant advocates tend to do. But neither should values be left out of the case for liberal immigration reform. Both the restrictionist FAIR and the pro-immigration America's Value claim in their slogans that they seek "common sense" immigration reform. But this issue is not just about common sense, it's about common values in America—"justice for all," "inalienable rights," and being your "brother's keeper."

Values played a major role in the Obama victory, and they also belong in the immigration debate.

Tom Barry directs the TransBorder Project ( of the Americas Policy Program ( at the Center for International Policy in Washington, DC. He blogs at