The growing electoral power of the Latino community in the US concerns more than immigration policy.
Cartoon by Me & Folly
On Thursday Americans begin their Thanksgiving holiday, a celebration with its roots in the country’s founding story of the British Puritans who came to the Northeast coast in the Mayflower in search of freedom to raise their families in a Biblical faith. There were other founding traditions, of course: Spanish, French, Dutch, Catholic as well as Protestant. However, it is not the earliest arrivals and their traditions but the latest ones who have been exercising the minds of some Americans lately.
As the Pew Hispanic Center notes, “The United States is more than four decades into what has been, in absolute numbers, the biggest immigration wave in its history–more than 40 million arrivals. Unlike previous waves that were almost entirely from Europe, the modern influx has been dominated by Hispanic and Asian immigrants.” Of these two groups the Hispanic is by far the largest and it contributed significantly to President Obama’s re-election. As family-minded America sits down to Thanksgiving dinner it might well spare a thought for what this means for its own tradition, and not just the next election.
The majority of Latinos have always voted Democrat in presidential elections. The largest share of their vote for a Republican candidate from 1980 to 2012 was 40 percent for George W. Bush in 2004. In 2008 that dropped to 31 percent, and in 2012 to a mere 27 percent for Mitt Romney—while Obama won no less than 71 percent of the Latino vote. That proportion assumed greater significance for two reasons: the growth of the Latino population, and the failure of nearly 7 million white voters to turn out on election day.
“Latinos are Republicans. They just don’t know it yet,” Ronald Reagan is supposed to have said. For one thing they tend to be conservative on social issues—things touching on morality and family life. They are significantly more pro-life than Americans generally regarding abortion. Until very recently they have opposed gay marriage by wide margins. It should also mean that they are entrepreneurial and wary of big government. But, as The Economist noted in a profile of the Latino electorate before the elections, they tend to believe in an activist government.
There is a no great mystery in that. Poor immigrants taking up low-paid jobs and struggling to provide for their families (both in the US and in home countries) are most likely to vote for the welfare state. As for most people, immediate economic needs tend to dictate political choices. In the recent election, according to a Pew analysis of exit polls, among Latino voters whose total family income is below $50,000, 82 percent voted for Obama and 17 percent for Romney. Among those on higher incomes, the vote for Obama came down to 59 percent and for Romney rose to 39 percent.
There were other factors of course: Obama’s pitch to youth, particularly young women, the ethnic factor which he represents, and his success—aided by Romney’s jibe about the “47 percent” who “don’t pay taxes”—in painting the latter as an uncaring plutocrat. But the income gap within the Latino community indicates that Democratic support is more a function of economics than values.
And it is in the light of values rather than specific policies, perhaps, that the immigration issue loomed so large in this election. There is agreement from all sides that strong anti-immigration (and deportation) messages from the Republicans, including, notably, Romney himself, significantly reduced the Latino vote for Romney and drove more of them into the arms of Obama. Immigration may not be a policy priority for Latino voters, a Latino lobbyist told The Economist, but the way candidates talk about it can be a proxy for how they regard the community. In other words, it’s a matter of respect.
This seems to be the most important lesson about immigration to be drawn from the recent elections—not the need for political compromise on the part of Republicans so as to get more of the Latino vote next time round, but the need for them to do some deep thinking about values and how to connect with their Hispanic brethren at that level.
For the pragmatic, however, there seems to be one very practical consideration on the immigration front. Birthrates around the world are falling and people are becoming a scarce resource. In Mexico, the powerhouse of US immigration over the past 40-50 years, the total fertility rate is already near “replacement” level (2.1 children per woman) and the economy is booming. Felipe Calderon, former president of Mexico, told the Wall Street Journal in September: “The net rate of migration of Mexican workers toward the United States became zero in 2010 and it repeated zero in 2011 and probably it will be zero or less than zero this year.” Although tens of thousands are still arriving from south of the border each year, 1.4 million Mexicans living in the U.S. returned to Mexico between 2005 and 2010, the vast majority of them voluntarily, the Journal notes.
Because it is a younger population with higher fertility (though falling) than that of white and black Americans, the Latino community (and Asian) will continue to increase as a proportion of the US population while whites decline. According to the Pew Hispanic Centre, the Latino share could be as much as 29 percent by 2050. The US workforce will need these younger populations. Fortunately they have what The Economist calls “a fierce belief in the importance of education”.
Obviously, the Latino population is diverse and its traditional values are subject to the same secularising and utilitarian forces as other traditions, both in their countries of origin and in the US. In the 2012 National Survey of Latinos conducted by Pew, 52 percent of Hispanics were in favour of allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, while only 34 percent were opposed. In the recent election Hispanic women supported Obama by 76 percent compared to 65 percent of Hispanic men, says Pew—indicating that they bought his pitch about “women’s rights”, among other things.
Heartland American and Hispanic values overlap where it counts the most: in the family as the seedbed of life and community. It seems that both would gain by thinking deeply what is working against the family in contemporary America and how family life can be fortified. That is something that many of us would give thanks for.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.