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.