Whatever Happened to Latino Political Power?

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vote-aquiDemography is destiny, or so the saying goes, but Latinos are learning this political season that destiny can take detours.

As their population in the United States surged from 35 million in 2000 to nearly 57 million, Latinos became the subjects of a feel-good political story that bathed a marginalized minority in the glow of demographic triumphalism. Acting as a cohesive political force, Latinos were supposed to power Democratic majorities for decades and enshrine the welcoming immigration policies they overwhelmingly favor.

Instead, the 2016 campaign is showing how viscerally the paranoia of a majority can take aim at those gaining ground. Rather than a moment of triumph, this could be the year of the Latino eclipse.

“Today we march. Tomorrow we vote.” That chant brought more than a million people into the streets in 2006 to protest tough immigration policies promoted by conservative Republicans. Since then Latinos have held to an ethnic empowerment strategy based on a single policy objective — citizenship for unauthorized immigrants — and a single tactic — becoming an essential constituency in presidential elections.

Sure enough, in 2008 and 2012 about two-thirds of the Hispanic electorate backed the candidate who promised a path to citizenship. But Barack Obama did not deliver, even when his party controlled both houses of Congress, and then he earned the title “deporter in chief” by hustling nearly two million unauthorized immigrants back across the border.

Nonetheless, here we are again. Latinos are rolling the dice for a third time, betting most everything on one issue, one party and one candidate. Trouble is, the game has changed but the strategy hasn’t.

Despite a decade of trying, Latinos are finding that legalization grows more remote. Immigration advocates who once demanded nothing less than citizenship for all 11 million unauthorized immigrants would now settle for the temporary reprieve from deportations ordered by President Obama more than a year ago. That plan covers only about half of the unauthorized population with no guarantee of legalization, and red-state governors have blocked it with a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, the immigration battle has produced no name-brand leaders, and despite sporadic successes, the new faces in advocacy, such as the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and United We Dream, have not developed into institutions of sustained influence. Worse, immigration advocacy has not produced powerful alliances for Latinos, but it has aroused some notable enemies.

In opinion polls, Latinos’ partners in the Obama coalition say they favor legalization, but immigration gets scant resources from liberal interest groups compared with gun control, marriage equality or climate change. There is plenty of commitment and passion on the other side, however. Conservative Republicans consistently list a crackdown on unauthorized migration as a top priority, and the president’s executive orders have imbued the issue with the extraordinarily personal animus he provokes among his foes.

A backlash was predictable given the vast demographic change that Latinos are part of: For the past five years, the majority of babies born have not been white. Middle-class economic worries and populist anger at elites added fuel to white anxieties. Then the Washington deadlock over unauthorized migration provided a target. Still, the particular ugliness of the presidential campaign was hard to see coming. With Donald J. Trump stirring the caldron, fear of terrorism is combining with nativism to produce a strain of xenophobia as virulent as any in decades.

Even more surprising is the lack of a Latino response. In past election seasons young unauthorized immigrants, the Dreamers, have staged protests to demand immigration reform, but they have yet to take on Mr. Trump loudly. Given his vitriol, you would expect large demonstrations. Compared with Black Lives Matter protesters, Latinos seem passive. In that case, young people, loosely connected by social media and operating outside of institutions, took action that made race resurgent in politics and policy. Similar activism and strengthening of group bonds could still develop among Latinos. If not, then you have to wonder whether political analysts have assigned immigration too great a role in the Hispanic psyche.

More oddly still, the most prominent Latinos on the political stage are conservative Republicans who take a hard line on immigration enforcement. Senators Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida challenge what it means to be a Latino leader by promoting policies at odds with a majority of Latino voters, but nonetheless they are the sons of Latin American immigrants. To label them “traitors,” as some activists have done, renders the term “Latino” a political affiliation based on a litmus test, not an ethnicity that can claim the power of census numbers.

Both Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio are eloquent proponents of the aspirational narrative — my father had nothing — that is more universal and more intrinsic to Latino identity than the Spanish language. Both are betting that the polls are right in showing that Latinos care more about economic issues than about immigration. They’ll try to pull Latino voters with a message of less government, more jobs. They don’t have to get many to have an impact.

In their Senate elections, Mr. Cruz drew at least 35 percent of the Latino vote in Texas, while Mr. Rubio got 55 percent in Florida. A Republican ticket that solidly tops the roughly 40 percent share of the Latino vote captured by George W. Bush in 2004 would upend the notion that Latino population growth dooms the Republican Party. Faced with that possibility, the Democrats could hoist a Latino into the spotlight. Hillary Clinton, who backs a path to citizenship, has already said she’ll “really look hard” at Julián Castro, the former San Antonio mayor and current secretary of housing and urban development, as a possible running mate.

By taking increasingly hard positions on enforcement and against legalization, Mr. Cruz and Mr. Rubio have further polarized the already harsh politics of immigration. They’ve cut maneuvering room for moderate Republicans, and they have complicated choices for Latinos.

If either senator draws a sizable share of their votes, Latinos might gain the clout that comes with being swing voters. But that would shatter the notion of ethnic solidarity with unauthorized immigrants. Latinos might find unity by rallying against the Republican hard line on immigration, but then they will be reduced to not only one issue but also one party. If the Democrats own their votes because there is no alternative on immigration, what leverage do Latinos exercise on jobs and education, the issues they say they care about most?

AS the election year unfolds, a wild card looms on the Rio Grande where signs point to a renewed surge of Central American refugees. So far, Mrs. Clinton has issued only a noncommittal expression of concern over reports that the Obama administration plans a crackdown. If women and children end up in detention centers, as they have in the past, and Mrs. Clinton backs the president, Latinos could find themselves with no candidate taking a fully sympathetic position on immigration.

Over the years, Latinos have claimed a political destiny based on their population numbers, but the numbers that count in politics are those that decide elections. On that score Latinos have a dismal record to overcome.

Between 2000 and 2012 the number of Hispanics eligible to vote grew by almost 10 million, but the number of actual voters increased by half as much. Even with immigration reform on the line, fewer than half of eligible Latino voters cast ballots in the two Obama elections, compared with around two-thirds of whites and blacks. This lackadaisical approach to civic engagement extends even to the population most affected by federal immigration policies. Eligible immigrants from Mexico adopt United States citizenship at about half the rate that newcomers from all other countries do.

Latino concerns on immigration policy, Latino candidates and Latino voters nationwide seem certain to draw significant attention this year. The demand for citizenship on behalf of unauthorized immigrants will ring hollow if people who are eligible for citizenship do not naturalize and Latino citizens do not vote. Latino voters have the potential to exert real political power. But a failure to show up on Election Day will eclipse any strength in numbers.

Roberto Suro is a professor of public policy and journalism at the University of Southern California.

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