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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Do We Care About the Future?

By John W. Wilhelm
If demography is destiny, then the Democratic Party may be destined to permanent minority status if it is unwilling to squarely appeal to the surging immigrant population, especially Latinos. Consider a few critical trends. (Hispanic statistics are used here because they are available, but similar trends pertain to those coming to the U.S. from all over the world.)
— In just the last four years, the Hispanic population in the United States has grown by 14 percent to 40 million people versus only 2 percent growth for the non-Hispanic population. By the year 2020, the projected Hispanic population will top 60 million.
— As the Latino population grows, its composition is undergoing an underlying change. Births to Hispanic immigrants, rather than immigration itself, will be the key source of population growth in the near future. By 2020, second-generation Hispanics (i.e., citizens) are projected to reach 21.7 million in number, representing 36 percent of the overall Hispanic population, up from 9.9 million in 2000, when they represented 28 percent. As the white and African-American baby boom generation reaches retirement age, young Hispanics are filling in. In the year 2000, the U.S. Census reported that the median age of Hispanics, at 26 years, was nearly ten years younger than non-Hispanics. More than one-third of Hispanics are under the age of eighteen. These trends will continue regardless of our border policies, and native-born, English-speaking, U.S.-educated Hispanics will have a much greater voting impact on the country than their parents did.
— The Hispanic population is growing faster in much of the Republican Party-dominated South than anywhere else in the United States. North Carolina (394%), Arkansas (337%), Georgia (300%), Tennessee (278%), South Carolina (211%) and Alabama (208%) registered the highest rate of increase in their Hispanic populations of any states in the U.S. between 1990 and 2000, except for Nevada (217%). To be sure, these numbers started from a small base – between 293,000 and 1.2 million in the six southern states – but the trend is expected to continue. Notably, Hispanic voters in the South gave George Bush 53 percent of their votes in 2004.
— The Hispanic electorate is growing much faster than the non-Hispanic electorate. Between the 2000 vote and the election this November, the number of eligible Latino voters will have increased by about 20 percent — six times faster than the non-Hispanic population. Based on the most recent population data available, 40 percent of Hispanics, 15.7 million people, were eligible voters in 2003. Going forward, applying the same eligibility percentage to the expected 2020 Hispanic population suggests that it will grow to 24 million eligible voters, an increase of 52 percent.
Democrats may gloat that the Republican Party’s intramural brawl over immigration will do for national Democrats what California Governor Pete Wilson’s Prop. 187 did in the 1990s for Democrats in California, namely turn the Republican Party into a minority party.
Not so fast. While the leadership of a number of Democrats in the current immigration debate is helpful, too many Democrats (and their political consultants) are frightened of this issue. Indeed, a March 28 survey by the Center for American Progress shows legal immigrants giving both political parties low marks for the job they have done so far on immigration policy. While just 22 percent of Republicans received a positive rating, Democrats and the President scored little better at 38 percent and 32 percent respectively. This suggests that immigrant voter attitudes are still in play. Many of these new arrivals are newcomers to the U.S. political system, with no strong loyalties to any political institution and uncertain in their partisanship.
And who knows – the enlightened wing of the Republican Party shows signs of standing up to the Tancredo wing and rescuing their party from losing this growing bloc of voters. If Democrats treat it as a spectator sport, we can expect to see a continued erosion of votes for Democratic politicians.
The Bush experience is instructive. First as Texas governor and then in the White House, Mr. Bush has wisely tried to burnish his pro-immigrant image. And it is working. Among Hispanics in particular, he has made enormous progress. Bob Dole won 21 percent of the Hispanic vote in 1996; Mr. Bush improved that to 35 percent in 2000 and again to 44 percent in 2004.
The recent unprecedented outpouring of immigrants (not just Latinos) in marches all across the country ought to make clear that politicians and their parties risk losing this increasing bloc of voters by endorsing punishing measures aimed at immigrants.
In the context of a deeply polarized electorate, the shallow attachments many Latinos have to political parties in the U.S. make them attractive potential recruits to both parties. How attractive?

  • Arizona, Florida, New Mexico and Nevada together have 47 electoral votes.
  • In Arizona, where over 1.5 million votes were cast in the last presidential election, the Latino voting-age population is 16 percent of the electorate. Eighty percent of Latinos are native-born. There are about 337,600 unregistered Latino voters.
  • In Nevada, Latinos make up 13 percent of the voting-age population. Since the last presidential election, the number of eligible Latinos in Nevada has increased by about 50 percent, and Latinos account for about half of all the increase in the Nevada electorate. About two-thirds of the Latino eligible voters in Nevada are native-born. There are an estimated 126,600 unregistered Latino voters.
  • In Florida, 14 percent of the voting-age population is Latino. The fastest growth has been among native-born Latinos, who account for 83 percent of the new eligible Latinos. There are an estimated 568,700 unregistered Latino voters. Florida Hispanics increasingly are from countries other than Cuba.
  • In New Mexico, Latinos comprise 40 percent of the voting-age population. An estimated 203,900 Latinos are unregistered.

Just over the horizon, a political tidal wave is swelling in immigrant communities. It is still anybody’s guess who will get drowned out and who will ride the wave.
There is, of course, much more than the future of politics at stake here.
Economic growth is also at stake: because the native-born American work force will shrink over the next two decades, continued immigration is critical to our ability to grow the economy.
Most of all, this is a justice issue.
America was built by successive waves of immigrants, whether they came here voluntarily or involuntarily. The genius of this country has been its repeated ability to rejuvenate and re-energize itself with new immigrants, to fight against nativism and racism, to enable all of them to become Americans and to stand, eventually, alongside earlier arrivals, all woven together into the great tapestry of America.
Memories of who stands up for justice last a long time. Catholics voted overwhelmingly Democratic for generations, stemming from nativist Republican anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic positions in the first part of the twentieth century. African Americans have voted overwhelmingly Democratic for almost fifty years, in spite of the legacy of Lincoln, because of the civil rights movement.
Justice speaks loud. All Americans should follow the welcome leadership of many Catholics on immigration as a human rights issue. The fact that the political future is also at stake should be a bonus.

NOTE: This article draws from U.S. Census data, published survey data from the Pew Hispanic Center, published survey research of the Tarrance/Bendixen Firms, and published research of the Center for American Progress.

8 comments on “Do We Care About the Future?

  1. Momintn on

    John W. Wilhelm is president, Hospitality Industry, UNITE HERE (representing workers in the hospitality, textile, and garment industries).
    It sounds to me like you are supporting illegal immigration possibly because of the industries you are lobbying for. I feel that this is one of the few reasons that the Dems have lost and I hope they stand firm for border security and only allowing legal immigration when there are not enough Americans who want the jobs. I think we should wait until we see a true shortage of workers because most of forecasts for political reasons turn out to be untrue. Perhaps we just need to pay a higher wage to attract our own workers.

  2. Paul on

    Immigration Policy does not attract the Latino Vote
    Without a doubt this country needs a comprhensive approach to the immigration problem. But do the policy squabbles over immigration resonate to the traditional Latino voter? In the Northeast you have Puerto Ricans, American citizens since 1917 who have been a mainstain in the Democratic party in cities like New York, Hartford and and Jersey City. The same goes for Cuban Americans in certain parts of Florida(not Miami) and New Jersey and Mexican Americans in California that have been here for generations. These voters are not too compelled by the immigration debate. I’ve seen it myself, hitting the streets door to door in an effort to educate voters for an upcoming Gubernatorial primary. These Latino voters are struggling. Whether impovrished or working class. They call for the need of more employment opportunites, access to higher education and healthcare. Are WE as Dems fogetting the basic needs of our constituencies for a hot button issue? I have not once been asked by a voter on where the candidate I work for stands on immigration. Instead I have to fend off concerns that there is not enough being done to adress these issues.

  3. Neal Hartmann on

    The Democrat Party has traditionally been seen as standing for the poor and middle classes. This is no longer the case. We are slowly being strangled by the huge inflx of illegal immigrants. Right now there are somewhere between 20-30 million illegals in this Country and when the Democrat party accommodates their close relatives noe in Mexico the number could soon increase to 50 million. These are poor, illiterate people and will require enormous monies to support them. Who will pay for this? The rich?
    At a time when our cost of living is zooming, our health insurance and retirement are disappearing and, we are very concerned keeping our jobs. Is this the time to unload generations of millions upon millions who will enormously dilute any State/Federal services we may have earned. Please don’t destroy our lives for the sake of some tenuous Hispanic votes!

  4. Edna on

    The Party’s stand on illegal immigration is without reason. Where do you think the $20,000,000,000 a year is going? It is going to families left behind in Mexico. Ignoring the Heritage Foundation report any reasonable person can see this country cannot provide for all of the people that will come to this country under the family reunification and guest worker provisions of the Senate bill.
    Pay attention to the messages on this board. These comments are coming from Democrats.

  5. Casey on

    The Democratic Party risks losing all over their current “open borders” position. The Democrats have a real chance this year to gain seats, but unless they get their act together on this issue pronto they will lose seats, not gain them.
    2006 is the year. If the Democratic Party does not make inroads now, it will not matter what they do in 2008 or 2010.
    Guestworkers, open borders, “be nice to those poor Mexicans” because their (citizen) children might vote in 15 years — it’s all balderdash to the man on the street. What that position means is that the Party puts businesses before people, does not value current citizens as it does future voters, and really doesn’t think more than two minutes about issues.
    Illegal immigration hurts American workers. Guest Worker programs hurt American workers. Illegal immigration is already straining what little safety nets exist in this country. Illegal immigration grants free services to non-citizens while the honest taxpayer sees his savings erode and his future disappear. Why is it so hard for the Democratic Party to grasp this??

  6. Anne Baker on

    I agree that the hispanic population must not be ignored but I have an issue with using appealing to illegal immmigrants form any nation in order to win votes.
    I believe (as most Americans do from every poll I have seen)that immigrants must be here legally and need to go thru the legal process of becoming US citizens before they are given rights to vote. I also beleive that they are being exploited which is morally wrong and also something that most Americans agree on. They are exploited by companies who hire them and do not pay them living wages and are not protected by any of our labor laws becasue they are not citizens and are working illegally. To advocate exploiting them further as a voting block is also morally wrong and I hope this is not what your suggesting!
    No doubt all the so called “experts” agree that our immigration system is in terrible disarray. More immigration employees are despartly needed and the system of verifying, and approving immigrants who desire to be come cizitens or just work here legally with a green card is horribly ineffecient and frought with corruption. Our borders too are under protected because the boarder agents are to few and underfunded. Building a wall is proposterous as a “solution” to this by the way…a suggest a better use of our tax dollars be spent on more agents at the border and a national policy which not only returns illegals back to their respective home lands but which also charges the cost to do so back to their countries of origin. The costs incurred to return illegals could even be taken “off the top” of any aid we are giving many of these countries.
    Likewise, the nations of Latin America n particular, who send their mostly unskilled and many times illeiterate populations here and reap the benifit of American dollars sent back to those countries are to blame.
    Mexico is a prime culprit in this and should be made to take responsibility for providing a better life inside it’s own country. I ahve seen no diplomatic or political pressure being placed on Mexicao in this regard. Why?

  7. christine fimbres on

    as a lifelong Democrat, it is disgusting to see the party running scared from and pandering to illegal immigrants to garner more votes. whatever happened to principles?

  8. linda m shoop on

    If we continue to allow the republicans to divide us into splinter groups the subjects you cover will continue to be used as poltical tool.We must not allow ourselves to defend our stance.It is time we ask the republicans why not tell them why not.


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