2010's Lessons For Latinos

The Republican led defeat of the Dream Act offers one more example in the well established tradition of the GOP rejecting major Latino policy preferences. It maintains the tradition sustained by California’s Proposition 187 that voters approved in 1994. Proposition 187 laid the foundation for the pro-immigrant Democratic take-over of California that continues through today, and became a symbol used by to mobilize Latinos against Republicans nationwide. Arizona’s 2010 anti-undocumented immigration legislation maintains this tradition and, like Proposition 187, had significant electoral consequences within Arizona and nationally. It has mobilized anti-immigrant sentiment and helped carry Arizona’s Governor Jan Brewer to victory.

However repugnant Latino leaders find the Republican’s anti-immigrant stance, it should not have been a surprise. Despite claims that they seek the Latino vote, nothing in the Republican agenda addresses the key concerns of the great majority of the Latino electorate. Indeed, to the extent that the vote on the Dream Act disabuses Latino advocates of the belief that their political future is best served by dealing with both parties, Republicans may have done Latinos a favor. It should make Latinos realize they are more likely to increase their clout by committing to the Democrats and helping their “natural” allies become the nation’s dominant party rather than by collaborating with both parties.

To that end, Latino leaders and Democratic officials must join forces to get Latinos to educate Latinos and get them to the polls.  Although most of those who vote support Democrats, a noteworthy minority votes Republican. In 2010, the vote split in favor of the Democrats, 60%-37%. Overall, Republican candidates for state wide offices in California, Texas and Arizona exceeded 30%. While this pattern clearly favors the Democrats, it is well below the level of support African Americans give Democrats. It may not be realistic to expect that Latinos will attain that level of support, but outreach projects should be developed as a means toward that end.

The urgency of such efforts is underscored by key results of the 2010 election. Elections in well established majority-minority congressional districts long held by Latinos in San Antonio and El Paso were won by Republican Latinos. It is extremely unusual for incumbents in such districts to de displaced by challengers from their own party; it is unheard of to have them lose to members of the opposition.

It isn’t clear that the Dream Act can be the stimulus Latino voters need to realize the potential inherent in their increasing numbers. It clearly isn’t the issue of primary concern to most Latinos. Advocates, therefore, must develop a program that attacks the community’s major problems while also confronting immigrant concerns. Such an approach will facilitate building the range of coalitions that is essential if Latinos are to play the role in national politics that they have long sought but which has been denied them. 2011 is the year to finally take that step.

Rodolfo de la Garza, a Columbia University professor of Political Science, has studied immigration, political attitudes and voting for over 30 years. He directed the first national political survey of Latinos and has authored, co-authored and edited 18 books and more than 100 scholarly articles and reports on foreign policy, immigration and political attitudes and behavior.