"The Hispanic Vote": An Insult Latinos Can Do Without

By Otis Graham, February 26, 2012

Everybody I talk to is in a foul mood about the condition and performance of American politics and government. And my topic in this blog does start out as another of the many discouraging malfunctions that would earn our politics a formal downgrade if political systems had to face the equivalent of a Standard and Poor's review. But read on. I argue in the end for the real possibility of corrective reform from within.

That our immigration policy is "broken" has no dissenter, and this is no marginal matter. As Ronald Reagan said, if your immigration law is unenforced you can wind up losing your country – and he had not seen what a few illegal residents could do in New York with one jet airplane.

But unenforced it increasingly was – before, during, and after Reagan. Predictably, some might say. After all, most developed countries' immigration law and policy are built to generate trouble, for they bring into the country people with strong loyalties to the nation of birth and to the relatives left behind. We are familiar with the American story, where many immigrants urge their kin to join them in the new country. A few ideologues pressure the host nation to weaken all immigration limits or (think Cuba) terminate them entirely. Ethnicity entrepreneurs claiming to speak for all immigrants of their nationality lobby to weaken or abandon immigration law's core effort to limit and select in the national interest. They meddle in the adopted country's foreign and domestic policies, sometimes with unwanted strategic effect.

Sometimes. Which is too often, and it is happening now. Recall that the U.S. beginning in the early 1980s has devoted substantial national effort in a three decade-long reform effort to repair the gaping holes and vulnerabilities found in our immigration system by presidential or national commissions in the terms of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton – holes and vulnerabilities also found and exploited by terrorists planning 9/11. This reform effort, despite supportive public opinion, remains frustrated and unfulfilled and adds to the growing record of U. S. governmental incompetence.

The forces responsible for this immigration policy paralysis are well known: employers avid for cheaper labor, white-guilt liberals in universities, media, and religious bodies, and ethnic lobbyists claiming to speak for ethnic "blocs" hostile to limits – of which the Hispanic bloc is the most frequently invoked. And least scrutinized.

A Rip Van Winkle falling asleep in the 1920s and awakening today would be astonished at this configuration of immigration politics. He would expect the growing number of Latino lobbyists to testify in Washington for firm border patrols to curb illegal immigration from Mexico, recalling that was the stance of Mexican American lobbyists for much of the first half of the 20th century. Beginning in the 1920s the new League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) told congressional committees that unchecked Mexican immigration would intensify discrimination against U.S. citizens of Mexican descent and impede their economic and social advancement. In the 1960s one of these Americans of Mexican descent, Cesar Chavez, began to organize the United Farm Workers (UFW) along the southwestern border and became this nation's most revered Hispanic leader. His fledgling union battled growers who fought UFW strikes with what Chavez called "scabs" from Mexico. These "hated illegal newcomers" became a career-long, unsolved problem for him, in the words of one of his biographers, Richard Etulain. Chavez "turned his head on occasion when his supporters used violence against illegal workers" and, acknowledging that attitudes in the Mexican-American community were "deeply divided", said in a 1979 speech at the National Press Club in Washington that if his mother was an illegal strikebreaker, he would ask that the law be enforced and that she be removed.

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Chavez is gone now, though he never changed his mind on the harm done to American citizens of Mexican descent by large flows of illegal Mexican labor. Historians of Mexicans in the U.S. generally agree on the centrality of the theme of labor competition within that ethnic community. "The endless flow of labor from across the border undermined the farm labor and civil rights movements, created enormous strains in the Mexican American community, and increased animosity toward Mexican Americans in general," wrote University of North Carolina historian Zaragosa Vargas, in his Labor Rights Are Civil Rights: Mexican American Workers in Twentieth-Century America.

Hispanic lobbyists today dislike being reminded of what might be called the Chavez heritage of Mexican American resentment of economic and social competition from illegal Mexican and Central American workers. They uniformly claim that now there is a reliable "Hispanic vote" ready to punish any politician proposing to resist illegal entry into the U. S. This alleged Latino voting and marching majority will flood to the candidates and party taking the softest immigration policy position, i.e. amnesty for illegals, expanded visas for guestworkers and others – essentially an open border.

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Though nobody has said as much on the public record seen by me, this oft-repeated claim that there exists a "Hispanic immigration voting bloc" dedicated to open borders could be seen as deeply insulting to Latinos. On this issue the rest of us are invited to conclude that Hispanic voters care more for the expansion of the numbers of their ethnic cohort (a misleading concept, as most Spanish-speaking people in America identify with nation of origin and not with "Hispanic" or "Latino") than other social and economic issues. And that their history of opposition to the influx of illegals has somehow evaporated. And that they give no weight in their voting calculations to the national interest in secure borders and the rule of law. We could also conclude that Hispanics in the voting booths passively vote as their open-borderish handlers dictate. Unflattering.

Fortunately, much evidence points away from such unpleasant conclusions about Latinos as voters, an important dimension of citizenship. University of Texas political science professor Rudolfo de la Garza has written that, during the 1950s and 1960s, "Mexican American leaders were among the most vociferous of the opponents to continued Mexican immigration." A l983 the Urban Institute reported that 54 percent of Latinos in southern California believed that illegal immigrants were having an "unfavorable impact." Journalist Ruben Navarrette wrote in 1994 that pollsters invariably find Latinos "more eager than the rest of the population to control the nation's borders." The Ford Foundation-sponsored Latino National Political Survey in 1992 reported that, while there was no "Latino" or "Hispanic" bloc in any sense of those words, taking data from Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans now citizens of the U.S., the LNPS survey found that more than 65 percent of each group believed that there were currently "too many immigrants coming to the U.S."

When California's Proposition 187 went on the ballot in 1994, proposing to deny public services to illegal aliens, early polls showed a majority of Hispanic voters in favor. Only a sustained and well-financed campaign by ethnic activists, Catholic clergy, and the liberal media brought the Hispanic vote for Prop 187 down to 31 percent.

In the 21st century Hispanic attitudes and voting behavior continued to ignore the predictions of ethnic "leaders." On the eve of the inauguration of Barack Obama a coalition of Latino organizations met in Washington to set out the priorities they expected the new president to adopt in gratitude for "the Hispanic vote". An amnesty for illegals was #1 on their list, confirming the accuracy of writer Linda Chavez's observation in her memoir, Out of the Barrio, where she observed that the "so-called self-appointed Hispanic leadership" was badly out of step with grassroots Hispanic opinion. The Pew Hispanic Center as Obama took office released a poll that asked Latinos what issues they considered "extremely important". The economy, education, health care, national security and the environment ranked ahead of immigration, though it was not clear what respondents wished done about the latter. A year later a Zogby poll found 56 percent of Hispanics agreeing that immigration was "too high".

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To learn from this poll evidence that Latino voters are not a bloc in a white heat to dictate an open border opens up remarkable possibilities for radical change in the politics of immigration. There seems to be almost no intra-Latino debate on immigration issues, at least not in public. It is time for Hispanic leadership from outside the ranks of the paid lobbyists at La Raza and MALDEF to articulate a modern version of the Chavez conception of an immigration policy and stance that is beneficial to Latinos legally in the country and takes as a starting point the control and limitation of human flows across our borders.

Fragmentary starts on the articulation of this vision have been made in the essays of Richard Estrada, Linda Chavez, and Luis Acle. In 1998 Hispanic journalist Roberto Suro gave the intellectual underpinning of Chavez' opposition to illegals a larger statement and more polished expression in his book Strangers Among Us. "Latinos will always be handicapped," he wrote, "so long as a large proportion of the Latino population is made up of people who have no legal standing in the U.S." He urged "punitive measures" against illegals by governments, backed by resident citizen Latinos "who must accept the fact that a large-scale illegal influx is harmful to their long-term interests." He urged "Ten years of consistent enforcement" of five- to 10-year bans on legal entry for violators of immigration law and even sponsoring kin who harbor them. The foundation of all this must be a computer-based registry system. "The wild card of illegal immigration has to be taken out of play," Suro closes his argument, and "until Latinos themselves reject illegal immigration they can never conclude the essential transaction that will win them acceptance" in America.

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Building the intellectual foundations of a modern Cesar Chavez Intellectual must be followed by political leadership, which may be coming forward in the rising careers of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, prominent among those Latino politicians who seem to be searching to rediscover a rule-of-law-compatible immigration language and policy with which minorities could move more smoothly into the mainstream and our politics more confidently make way for a brown Obama.