HERNDON, Va.—These have been heady days for America’s Hispanic immigrant activists, with round after round of massive demonstrations culminating in the May 1 marches and boycott.
But on May 2, town elections in this pretty little Washington suburb, which has emerged as a microcosm of America’s changing demographics and its bitter divide over illegal immigration, provided a sobering reminder of the vast—and growing—chasm between the geometric growth of the country’s Hispanic population and its relative lack of electoral clout.
In a stunning rout, Herndon voters defeated Mayor Michael O’Reilly and most of the Town Council members who had established an official day labor center for Hispanic immigrant workers, many of them illegal. More stinging yet, in a community that was 26 percent Hispanic in 2000, and is probably close to a third Hispanic today, Salvadoran-born Jorge Rochac, an ally of the mayor who had helped administer the new center, lost his bid to become the first Hispanic on the council. Instead, Rochac, who would have become only the second Latino elected official currently serving in the state of Virginia, finished dead last.
Rochac knew going in that he could not count on a lot of Hispanic votes. Two-thirds of Herndon’s Hispanics are not citizens, and most of those who are don’t vote. But the apparent inability of Herndon’s burgeoning Hispanic community to rally any significant support for Rochac makes plain the high hurdles Hispanics face on the road to political empowerment.
To put it in stark historical context, Hispanic voter registration rates today in Virginia and other Southeastern states, which have some of the fastest-growing Hispanic populations in the country, are far lower than black voter registration rates were throughout most of the South in the last days of Jim Crow.
The history and reasons may be entirely different, but the fact remains that once again, the nation’s largest minority (blacks then, Hispanics now), cannot vote in anything like their true numbers. It has the makings of a new American dilemma in which a distinct group of people, often identifiable by their color, culture and language, are consigned not just to a lower economic caste (“doing the jobs Americans won’t do”), but also a political limbo in which many of them cannot exercise the most fundamental right of American democracy.
And it’s not just in the South.
Nationally, 34 percent of Hispanics 18 and over were registered to vote in 2004, a rate roughly comparable to the black voter registration rate in Louisiana 40 years earlier, before enactment of the Voting Rights Act broke down the systematic barriers Southern states had erected to block black access to the franchise.
But the consequences are particularly obvious in states like those in the Southeast where the Latino surge is relatively recent.
So, while less than 30 percent of Texas Latinos, and only a little better than a quarter of California Latinos, voted in 2004, there is still such a large and longstanding Latino population in those states that according to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund, as of 2005, California had more than 1,000, and Texas more than 2,000 Latino elected officials from the school board level up. Florida and New Jersey each had more than 100 Latino elected officials.
Meanwhile, Virginia and South Carolina each had one; Louisiana and Tennessee, two; North Carolina, three; and Georgia, seven. Alabama, Mississippi and Arkansas had none.
Even as more Hispanics become citizens and register every day, the profound gap between population and electoral power grows wider. As the Pew Hispanic Center reported last June, while Hispanics accounted for half of the national population growth between 2000 and 2004, they accounted for only one-tenth of the increase in the total number of votes cast, because so many in the new Latino population are not citizens or are under 18.
In defeat, Rochac, a sunny man of elegant bearing whose campaign theme was unity, furrowed his brow.
“The divisiveness is going to grow exponentially,” he warned. “I fear a backlash from Hispanics if they find themselves backed into a corner. A cornered animal is very dangerous.”