“Hispanics, Immigration and Politics”
Echaveste talked about the growing diversity
of the Latino population in the United States, and
the importance of nuances in campaigning among them.
Immigration and Politics
By Maria Echaveste
fanned the flames of fear over national security and terrorism
to hold onto power in the 2002 and 2004 elections, framing
the debate in terms of who would keep the nation safer: Republicans
or Democrats. Issues like health care, the economy and education
got pushed aside by the strength of the White House message
machine even in the 2004 election, when serious questions
concerning the war in Iraq were gaining traction.
2006, facing increasing disenchantment with President Bush’s
conduct of the Iraq war, the Republicans tried to use a new
version of the “ who will keep you safe” strategy.
This time, however, illegal immigration and the strengthening
the vulnerable southern border were to be the 3.0 version
of the “war on terrorism” game plan. Yet being
tough on illegal immigrants did not turn out to be the “Hail
Mary” pass that galvanized the conservative base to
save the Republican majorities in Congress. Instead, it may
have actually added to the points scored by Democrats with
another part of the electorate — Hispanic voters.
before Democrats can take the Hispanic electorate to the
bank every election day, they need to do a better job of
counting the votes. With respect to the real and perceived
increase in Latino support in 2006, Democrats need to crunch
the numbers and try to understand how the issue of illegal
immigration played in Hispanic communities around the country.
Democrats analyze the votes cast on election day, they may
learn that Hispanics went to the polls with other issues
on their minds (e.g., Iraq , the economy, corruption) but
became more interested in voting in November 2006 because
of the immigration debate. They may learn that Latinos were
just as concerned about illegal immigration as other Americans
but were (and continue to be) quick to notice when legitimate
concerns over a broken immigration system become the basis
for attacking all Hispanics, regardless of legal status.
Lastly, they may also learn that, like other Americans, Latinos
expect Congress to tackle and solve the nation’s problems.
If Democrats now in control of Congress come home in 2008
asking voters to keep them in power without having addressed
some of the toughest problems facing our nation, including
our broken immigration system, Latinos, like other Americans,
may decide to give control to someone else.
the general glee in Democratic campaign headquarters across
the country as the November 2006 results came in, there was
an additional reason to crow — initial post-election
analysis indicated that Hispanics had returned to the Democratic
column. In 2004, the Republicans had touted their inroads
into the Hispanic community. That year, President Bush received
about 40 percent of the Latino vote, an increase of about
10 percentage points from the 2000 election. Yet in 2006,
Latinos preferred Democratic candidates at rates ranging
from 67 percent (reelecting Governor Napolitano of Arizona
) to 73 percent (electing Robert Menendez of New Jersey to
speaking, Latinos increased their support for Democratic
candidates nationally to 69 percent as compared to 58 percent
in 2004, based on exit polls. When compared to the 2002 midterm
election, there is no question that Democrats improved their
support among Latino voters — then the spread was 61
percent Democratic to 37 percent Republican. Whether the
change was plus 11 points as compared to 2004, or plus 8
points when compared to 2002, given the closeness of many
elections in 2006, this shift is not insubstantial. Many
are quick to point to the Republicans’ strident and
hostile tone toward immigrants as giving the Latino edge
to Democrats. But before Democrats start to count on the
Hispanic vote as a solid blue block, they should ask: “Who
are these Hispanic voters?”
for several election cycles there has been a lot of hype
about the potential increase in Latino voters. Part of the
interest in this electorate is due simply to basic math.
The Hispanic share of the U.S. electorate is growing — directly
correlated to the growth in the Hispanic population as a
whole (now almost 44 million people). Yet even though Latinos
constitute about 14.6 percent of the total U.S. population
(as compared to 65 percent white, 12.3 percent black), the
percentages of both eligible voters (39 percent as compared
to 77 percent white and 65 percent black) and registered
voters (51 percent of eligible voters as compared to 69 percent
white and 63 percent black), are significantly less than
other groups. This can be explained in part by the large
percentage of Latinos who are not citizens and the greater
percentage of the Hispanic population (as compared to the
broader public) that is under 18.
so, Hispanic political leaders, political operatives and
political parties keenly interested in this electorate. Additionally,
as Latinos have settled in the South and Midwest — beyond
the traditional receiving states of New York , California
, Texas and Florida — the potential impact of even
a small increase in voting participation by this population
generates nervous attention from politicians at all levels
of government. Whoever can design and implement a program
that significantly reduces the gap between registered and
eligible voters and increases the voter participation rate
of this electorate will be in a position of significant political
and policy influence. (Alas, that’s a story for another
of Latino voting behavior routinely describe the Hispanic
population as diverse, coming from different countries and
including both the native-born and recent immigrants. But
that does not even begin to describe the diversity. One fact
that is not clearly understood but bears underscoring is
that the vast majority (75 percent) of Hispanic eligible
voters are native-born and of that number almost half (48
percent) are third generation or more ( U.S. born of U.S.
born parents). This means that an issue like immigration
may not resonate equally across the Latino community or have
the emotional salience many would expect.
almost 50 percent of the Latino electorate is third generation
or more, trying to stroke the immigrant heart strings may
be a little harder. In that sense, Hispanics may be echoing
the pattern of previous immigrant waves as they assimilate
and acculturate. This is certainly true when it comes to
language — by the third generation, less than 5 percent
of Americans of Hispanic descent speak Spanish. Certainly,
the further removed from the immigrant generation, the less
in common Hispanic-Americans may have with recent arrivals,
including being able to communicate in Spanish.
facts may help explain why Senator Kyl, an Arizona Republican,
received 41 percent of the Hispanic vote in spite of his
strong anti-immigrant positions. As ground zero for the immigration
debate and home of the Minutemen, one would have assumed
that in Arizona the Hispanic electorate would decisively
reject a politician with extreme views like Senator Kyl.
Yet they did not. Hispanics also voted 48 percent in favor
of a statewide initiative making English the official language.
While technically unrelated to immigration enforcement, English-only
initiatives are often proxies for concerns that immigration — illegal
and legal — is out of control.
restrictionists cannot claim a complete victory. In this
very same border state a founder of the Minutemen who ran
primarily on an anti-immigrant platform, Republican Randy
Graf, lost decisively to Democrat Gabrielle Giffords in the
race for an open House seat. Giffords is an advocate for
comprehensive immigration reform, including the legalization
of millions of undocumented residents. Her nuanced approach
was likely appreciated by voters, especially Hispanics who
comprise 18 percent of this district.
important, in a stunning upset Republican incumbent J.D.
Hayworth, also campaigning hard against illegal immigration,
lost to comprehensive immigration reform advocate and Democrat,
Harry Mitchell. What exit polls revealed about these two
races, and other races across the country, was that voters
did not accept the immigration debate as the latest version
of the “national security and terrorism” message.
American voters seemed to understand that immigration reform
is a highly complex issue and, moreover, it was not uppermost
on voters’ minds. The silver bullet hoped for by the
Republican House leadership turned out to be made of lead.
conclusion that can be drawn from this data is that a balanced
approach to immigration reform, including the legalization
of millions, is not the Achilles heel that some Democrats
had feared. Before Republicans and even conservative and
Blue Dog Democrats conclude that they can safely take a tough,
anti-immigrant stance without being harmed at the ballot
box, they should remember that 50 percent of the Hispanic
electorate is either foreign born or has at least one foreign-born
parent. For that part of the electorate, the harsh immigration
views held by some politicians may be a negative or even
a motivator to participate in elections.
a national poll conducted just before the 2006 election by
the National Council of La Raza and the National Association
of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, 50 percent of
Hispanic registered and likely voters indicated that they
were “more enthusiastic” about voting this year
than in previous elections. Seventy-five percent of respondents
rated their interest in the election between eight and ten
on a scale of one to ten as compared to 6 percent when polled
in late September 2006. Also, though only 9 percent of those
polled listed immigration as their most important issue — ranking
education, the war in Iraq and the economy and jobs as more
important — more than half of those responding said
that immigration was one of the most important issues deciding
nuances are evident in the results of two Colorado races.
In the 7th Congressional District, Democrat Ed Perlmutter
was routinely attacked for being soft on illegal immigration.
In a district where the previous congressman, Republican
Bob Beauprez, had won by 55 percent; where registered Republicans
outnumber registered Democrats by 36 to 30 percent; and where
16 percent of the electorate is Hispanic, Perlmutter won
hands down. Voters deemed Perlmutter’s support for
comprehensive immigration reform, stronger employer enforcement
and a path to legalization for the undocumented a more realistic
solution to the problem than the proposals of his opponent,
the Republican Rick O’Donnell, who advocated sending
high school boys to patrol the border to help build their
character by combating illegal immigration.
Colorado ’s 4th District, Republican incumbent Marilyn
Musgrave squeaked by Democratic challenger Angie Paccione,
46 percent to 43 percent (104,876 to 97,670). This district
also has a sizeable Latino population at 17 percent. The
real story was that the third party candidate Eric Eidsness
walked away with 25,880 votes or 11 percent, half of which
could have given the Democrat the victory. Paccione had run
a tough anti-illegal immigrant ad, stressing enforcement.
Initial analysis indicates that about 14 percent of the Hispanic
vote went to Eidsness. While the ultimate result in this
race cannot be completely attributed to Paccione’s
tough anti-immigrant stance, it certainly seemed to have
been in the mix.
in the hotly contested and closely-watched 11th District
of California, incumbent Richard Pombo lost to Democrat Jay
McNerny (53 percent to 47 percent, by 10,500 votes). While
most of the attention on this race was focused on Pombo’s
terrible environmental record and his connections to disgraced
lobbyist Jack Abramoff, one shouldn’t ignore the fact
that the district is 19.7 percent Hispanic. Notwithstanding
that agriculture — a sector heavily dependent on undocumented
Hispanic farmworkers — is one of his district’s
top industries, Pombo refused to endorse proposals that would
have legalized that workforce. There were several voter registration
and mobilization efforts targeted to Latino voters and preliminary
results seem to show that Hispanics overwhelmingly supported
the Democratic candidate.
only way to reconcile these various results in Arizona ,
Colorado , California and across the country is to go back
to the basics. Hispanics are diverse: they differ linguistically
and ethnically as well as by country of origin and time in
the U.S. And that diversity must be minutely examined, analyzed
and absorbed if political parties, particularly Democrats,
ever hope to really make the Hispanic electorate a reliable
part of the base.
the support for English-only policies among Hispanics in
Arizona can be understood if one realizes that a significant
part of Arizona ’s Hispanic electorate has been in
the country for more than three generations. But those same
Hispanics rejected the anti-immigrant platforms put forth
by Republicans Graf and Hayworth, preferring Democratic candidates
who offered more balanced and nuanced approaches. And while
Hispanics in Colorado ’s 4 th district share some characteristics
with Arizona Hispanics, they seem to have been turned off
by Paccione’s anti-immigrant rhetoric and some of them
may have decided to support the third party candidate rather
than the Democrat.
the 2008 election campaign starts heating up and candidates
begin making plans to court Hispanic voters, they also ought
to try to understand the impact of the immigration debate
on the 18–24 cohort of the Hispanic population. Anecdotal
stories are circulating around the country regarding the
politicization of the young — high school and college
students — who participated in the spring 2006 immigrant
mobilizations. For many, this was their first foray into
civic engagement. Many young people demonstrated on behalf
of their parents and thus became highly sensitized to this
polarizing issue. Many are likely to continue to feel the
responsibility to register to vote on behalf of noncitizen
parents and relatives. Their thus far untapped energy and
motivation should not be lost on political organizers. These
young people may be particularly sensitive to harsh rhetoric
from either party.
reality is that the immigration issue is not the key to lock
in the Latino vote. However, candidates who take aggressive
anti-immigrant positions run the risk of alienating at least
some part of the Hispanic electorate. They may also unwittingly
motivate previously uninvolved Hispanic citizens to register
and vote. In the polarized and closely-divided country that
we live in, where elections are increasingly decided by minute
percentages, increased participation by any segment of the
population becomes important. And given the demographic trends,
the participation rate of this population should be of great
interest to political observers of all stripes, Republican
and Democrat alike.
Echaveste is Lecturer in Residence at Berkeley’s
Boalt Hall School of Law and the cofounder of the Nueva
Vista Group, a consulting firm. She served as Deputy Chief
of Staff in the Clinton White House from 1998–2001.
“Hispanics, Immigration and Politics”
of this event
69 percent of Hispanics supported Democratic candidates in
the 2006 election, an increase of more than 10 percent from
2004. Did the Republican strategy of focusing on illegal
immigration result in a loss of Hispanic support? Or were
there other reasons that explain the gains made by Democrats
among Hispanics? Can Democrats count on the Hispanic vote
in the upcoming elections?
Echaveste is Lecturer in Residence at Berkeley’s Boalt
Hall School of Law and the cofounder of the Nueva Vista Group,
a consulting firm. She served as Deputy Chief of Staff in
the Clinton White House from 1998–2001.
March 12, 12:00 – 1:15 pm
Lounge, Women's Faculty Club
Echaveste outside the Women's Faculty Club.