Hispanics for Obama (if they vote)

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, June 14, 2011


Securing the support of the growing Hispanic vote will not be sufficient to assure the re-election of President Barack Obama in 2012. Though it is unlikely that a majority of Hispanics will vote for the Republican candidate, Obama will not win re-election if Latinos abstain in high numbers.


Hispanics have reasons to be disappointed with Obama. During the 2008 campaign, Obama promised to push for comprehensive immigration reform. Arguing that sensible and compromising proposals had a better chance of overcoming congressional hurdles, Obama embraced some positions that are widely unpopular among pro-immigrations advocates. For example, Obama defended the idea that illegal immigrants will have to leave the country and return to their home nations for an undetermined number of months or years before they can acquire resident status.


Because they had better chances of seeing immigration reform pass under Obama than under a Republican president, pro-immigration advocates supported Obama in 2008. However, Obama's immigration record has been disappointing. No comprehensive legalization reform has come close to a vote in Congress. A rather modest and sensible initiative aimed at granting amnesty to undocumented college students failed to pass in the Senate in late 2010. The need to break a deal with Republicans on the expiring Bush tax cuts and the push to end the “don't ask, don't tell” policy on gays in the military were more important on Obama's priority list.


To the dismay of pro-immigration advocates, Obama has taken decisive action on immigration issues that don't require congressional approval. The executive has tightened regulations on deportations and border control. If deportations in the late 1990s totaled less than 200 thousand per year, they reached an all-time high of 387 thousand in 2009 and declined modestly in 2010. In addition, the border patrol has become more efficient in capturing illegal immigrants (which makes it more unlikely for those already residing in the U.S. to go back temporarily to visit their relatives in home countries). The conditions of illegal immigrants have actually worsened under Obama. High unemployment has lowered the demand for undocumented workers and tougher laws and regulations adopted at the state level have made it more difficult for illegal workers to stay in the U.S.


True, a majority of Latinos legally resides in the U.S. Only one in every five Latinos is undocumented. More than 60% of all Hispanics were born in the U.S.  Immigration policy primarily affects Latinos, but only a minority of Latinos is affected by immigration policy. However, immigration policy has emerged as the most symbolic issue that reflects the weight of the Latino agenda on national politics. Other issues, like education, health, employment and opportunities, are more important for Latinos than immigration. Yet, those issues are not exclusive to the Latino population. Thus, the government cannot easily frame progress on those issues as being a response to Latino demands. In fact, one of the key legislative successes of the Obama administration, universal health care, specifically excludes illegal immigrants from receiving health benefits.


Obama can credibly argue that Republicans have shown even less concern for Latino issues. Most states that have adopted strong anti-immigration laws are run by Republican governments. After George W. Bush made significant inroads in attracting the Latino vote, Republicans have embraced policies that make it difficult for their presidential candidate to attract Latino support. This is bad news for the Republicans in the long term, but not necessarily in the short term. 


One in every six Americans is Latino. However, a third of the more than 50 million Hispanics in the U.S. has not yet reached voting age. When undocumented immigrants and legal non-citizen residents are excluded, Hispanics comprised only 11% of the voting population. They turnout at lower rates than whites or blacks, 35% as compared to 49% and 44% respectively.  Hispanics only comprised 7% of the voting population in 2010. Still, that was their highest vote share ever. Provided a reasonably high turnout (between 40% and 50% of eligible voters), Latinos will be between 8 and 9 percent of all voters in 2012. As they will primarily vote Democrat, Obama will benefit from higher Latino turnout.


Aware of the importance of the Latino vote in 2012, Obama has begun to send strong signals to Latino voters. This week, he will visit Puerto Rico (whose inhabitants are U.S. citizens but don’t have the right to vote in federal elections if they reside in the island). He has held a series of public appearances aimed at strengthening links with the Latino population. His primary message is that since Democrats care more for the poor, they care more for Latinos who are overrepresented among the lower income brackets. However, it remains to be seen whether that will suffice to attract the Latino support in 2012.


In recent weeks, Republicans have continued to embrace anti-immigration policies, widely perceived as anti-Hispanic policies among Latinos.  As conservatives help by chasing Hispanics away from the Republican presidential candidate, Obama will have an opportunity to attract their support. If he fails, high abstention among Latinos will help Republicans regain the White House in 2012.