Washington—Before California’s Republican governor tried to get tough on illegal immigrants in the 1990s, the state had supported GOP candidates in all but two presidential elections since World War II.
California has been a solid blue state ever since the attempted crackdown, in part because of a backlash by the growing number of Hispanic voters.
Democrats hope to replicate that success nationally by using the current immigration debate to brand Republicans as anti-immigrant and anti-Hispanic. But Latinos are showing signs they are dissatisfied with both political parties, making these voters pivotal players in the November election as Republicans fight to retain control of Congress.
“If the political parties use immigration as a wedge issue, there might be a very big backlash,” said Marcelo Gaete-Tapia, senior director of programs for the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, or NALEO.
Hispanics are the largest and fastest growing minority group in the country, accounting for more than 14 percent of the population and about half the annual growth. But several factors diminish their political clout:
* About four in 10 adult Hispanics are not citizens, which means they are ineligible to vote.
* Hispanics are young, with a median age of 27, compared with 40 for white non-Hispanics. Turnout, in general, has increased among young voters, but they still vote at rates lower than for any other age group.
* Hispanics, as a group, earn less and have fewer years of education that than non-Hispanic whites, two more indicators of low voter turnout.
Hispanics “have bad demographics for voting,” said Rodolfo de la Garza, a political science professor at Columbia University.
Still, a NALEO analysis concludes that Hispanic voters can prove critical in competitive Senate races in New Jersey and Washington, and House contests in Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico, Texas and Washington.
For many Hispanics, this debate is about their future, Bendixen said, “about whether they are welcome in this country.”
The Pew poll found that most Hispanics believe discrimination against them has increased because of the immigration debate.
“The way that immigrants are treated is sort of the proxy for how the Latino community is viewed,” said Clarissa Martinez de Castro, state policy director for the National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Hispanic civil rights group. “When you hear the vitriolic debate on immigration in this country, what do you think of? When you belong to that ethnic group, you feel it.”