Donald Trump, the Republican nominee, has made “Build a wall!” and deporting 11 million people central promises of his presidential campaign. At his rallies, Latino immigrants are cast as an invasion that needs to be stopped because it is transforming the face of America too profoundly, too quickly.
The implicit point of his campaign theme — “Make America Great Again” — is that America was great when it was a less diverse nation and that resurrecting that era will require drastic measures. While this has resonated with some white Americans, disaffected by social changes and an uneven economic recovery, it has offended and frightened Latinos, one of the fastest-growing segments of the electorate.
Whether stoking xenophobia turns out to be a genius or a disastrous move by a presidential candidate who has defied all the laws of political gravity will depend on how many of the 27 million eligible Hispanic voters turn out in November.
In a tight race, a resounding Latino showing could flip battleground states for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, and change how political parties perceive and engage with Hispanic voters in the future. That would affirm that Latinos are shaping the destiny of a nation that has always become stronger by embracing newcomers.
Presidential campaigns have been courting Latino voters since John F. Kennedy made a strong effort to woo Mexican-Americans during his 1960 White House run, which he narrowly won. Since then, Latinos, an electorate that is rapidly diversifying as it grows, have continued to lean Democratic in presidential elections, but have turned out in low numbers.
George W. Bush made notable gains in 2004, getting roughly 40 percent of the Latino vote. After he left office, the Republican Party’s position on immigration hardened considerably. In a shortsighted move, party leaders have since sought to suppress minority voting power through a combination of redistricting and tactics like voter ID laws. Mitt Romney’s loss in 2012, when he received only 27 percent of the Latino vote, caused Republican strategists to talk seriously about remaking the party’s relationship with Latinos.
Mr. Trump obliterated any chance that would happen by making the demonization of Mexican immigrants a centerpiece of a campaign that has catapulted white supremacy into the mainstream of American politics. He has also vilified Muslims and spoken ignorantly and contemptuously about African-Americans.
Latino grass-roots organizers hope that Mr. Trump’s nastiness will unlock the potential of the Latino electorate. That may well happen. They have made an ambitious push to get Hispanics to become naturalized citizens and to register to vote this year, particularly in swing states. The crush of applications for citizenship has overwhelmed the government.
In addition to defeating a bully, Latinos have plenty of reasons to enthusiastically support Mr. Trump’s main rival.
Mrs. Clinton has coherent, well-thought-out plans to address the matters that Latinos say they care about most. These include the economy, affordable access to health care, national security and education. Her record on immigration policy is not consistently progressive; as a senator in 2007, she opposed allowing unauthorized immigrants to get New York driver’s licenses. But she has changed her position on that issue and has promised to make the long overdue overhaul of America’s broken immigration system a priority. She also has vowed to continue, and expand, the program President Obama established to temporarily shield from deportation millions of unauthorized young immigrants with deep roots in the United States.
While immigration reform will no doubt entail a tough political fight, Latinos could make the prospect of an overhaul more likely by going to the polls in November. Low turnout among these voters would increase the likelihood of a Trump victory, which could mean mass deportations and more attacks on immigrants.
America’s 56 million Latinos — one third of whom are under 18 — are helping to shape America’s future in classrooms, workplaces and neighborhoods. It is only a matter of time before their mark on the nation’s politics matches their contributions in other spheres.
That moment should start now.