Last Wednesday, the front-page of the New York Times (and news reports all over the country) blared that there is a mass of Latino registered voters who are not particularly motivated to vote this year. The story was based on a Pew Hispanic Center poll and I have spent a good part of the last few days debating with fellow Democrats (who, like me, want to see our Party win this November) the meaning of the poll's findings.
Then Thursday's New York Times reported on a press conference held by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano. On Wednesday, she stood with local Sheriffs and the head of the Homeland Security deportation unit, ICE, to announce -- nay, proclaim -- that the Obama Administration deported a record number of immigrants this past year. The U.S. government's new record is 392,862 people deported overall and you can guess that within this number, a record number of Latinos were also deported.
Call me crazy, but I think these two news stories are related to each other.
The Pew poll found that there is a vast pool of Latino voters who may not vote this year, but, if they did vote, the overwhelming majority would cast ballots for Democrats. The Republican Party has done such an effective job pushing Latinos away on the key issues -- immigration chief among them (have you seen David Vitter and Sharron Angle's ads?), but jobs, education, the economy, and health care too -- that the choice for most Latinos comes down to a vote for a Democrat or no vote at all.
This is why I am going around the country encouraging Latinos to vote. I've been in Florida and Ohio and soon I will be back in Nevada and California. I have been met with a certain amount of skepticism from Latino voters and immigration reform supporters whose patience is clearly wearing thin. But I tell them -- and most agree, for now -- that it is our responsibility to vote. Too many people fought too hard to make sure all citizens of all colors, races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities can vote to think that not voting somehow sends a message. Plus, in the Latino community, those of us who are eligible to vote must vote on behalf of those who aren't.
The Pew report got a lot of attention, but when taken with a more recent report by Latino Decisions, you get a fuller picture of what is going on. Latino Decisions, an outfit with a great record gauging Latino public opinion, says they are seeing "the first signs of increasing enthusiasm and vote intention among Latino registered voters in 2010" in their weekly tracking polls. They are seeing 75% intention to vote among registered Latino voters, not the somewhat underwhelming 51% reported by Pew.
Unlike the Pew poll, the Latino Decisions polling looks at voters over time -- almost in real time. The latest was taken after Sen. Harry Reid and Senate Democrats engineered an important immigration vote on the DREAM Act, a provision that would allow some immigrant children raised in the United States to earn legal status through military service or higher education. Every single Senate Republican voted against allowing the debate on the Defense Bill to proceed, which would have been followed by a debate on the DREAM Act as an amendment. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell stated that the Republicans would have allowed a debate on any aspect of the Defense Bill to go forward, as long as anything related to immigration was off the table.
All but two Democrats supported allowing a debate on the Defense Bill, including a debate on DREAM, but their strong majority fell short of the 60-vote super-majority needed.
Look, while I do not condone it, I understand why some Latinos are either passively or actively considering not voting this year. On the one hand, the GOP is in full-frontal assault mode on Latinos and immigrants. And yet, Democrats have not been seen doing enough to push back on the Republicans on behalf of Latinos and immigrants and have advanced the ball in the wrong direction in some respects.
Ramping up deportations and programs like "Secure Communities" to deport ever greater numbers of individuals who may (or may not) have a legitimate brush with local law enforcement is what the Department of Homeland Security is touting as the Obama Administration's accomplishment on immigration. That puts the Obama Administration somewhere between the vocal but unrealistic "throw them all out" minority and the much larger "solve the problem" majority and frankly is unconvincing to either side.
It is not too late for the Obama Administration, the Democrats, and individual Democratic candidates to take a firm stand on the immigration issue. It would not only address the perceived enthusiasm gap among Latino and immigrant voters, who will break strongly for Democrats if they vote, but also make inroads with the larger base of voters who want to end illegal immigration and institute a system of rules and responsibility.
What the Democrats have stood for on immigration is a new and rational approach that combines legal immigration with legalization and a crackdown on employers that actually fixes what is broken. Our solution includes:
- Visas for workers and family members within economically healthy limits which would provide an alternative to illegal immigration and eliminate smuggling.
- A plan that forces those already here illegally to take personal responsibility and action to get legal--and which is rooted in the reality that they and their families have deep roots in our communities, are working and are most likely here to stay.
- Making sure employers only hire who they are allowed to hire -- with consequences if they don't -- which is the only way to ensure fair competition between employers forced to play by the rules and between workers covered by the same labor laws and armed with the same rights.
Our plan gets the United States from illegality and chaos to legality and control the fastest. Such a plan is overwhelmingly popular with voters of all parties -- and it happens to be popular with Latino and immigrant voters too. It deflates the anti-immigrant and anti-Latino hysteria that is going unchecked in society, which ought to make everyone happy except for perhaps GOP strategists and leaders. Democrats can start by telling constituents what they are for and taking a leadership position in support of immigration reforms like the Menendez/Leahy comprehensive immigration reform bill (S. 3932) in the Senate and the Comprehensive Immigration Reform for America's Security and Prosperity Act (CIR-ASAP; HR 4321), that I helped author in the House.
Like a lot of Latinos and pro-immigrant voters, I am disappointed that these bills were not debated this year. But not voting in November does not keep the pressure on the Democrats; it only helps Republicans.
Looking down the road, if you think we would be better off on issues related to Latinos and immigrants with Judiciary Chairmen like Jeff Sessions and Lamar Smith, then stay home. If you think we would get closer to ending family deportations or allowing legal immigration for working class individuals under Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Steve King, you should stay home.
Given these choices, I'm sure Latino and immigrant voters can be persuaded to come out and stave off an anti-immigration disaster.
But it would help if the Democrats -- as a group or as individual candidates -- did more than wait for the Republicans to drive away immigrant and Latino voters. Standing up for them and for sensible immigration reform would go a long way this November. And it is not too late. But looking at 2012, what the Democrats are doing now is not going to cut it. An immigration platform of "we're not as anti-immigrant as the Republicans" combined with record-setting deportations is not a winning electoral strategy in a presidential year when states like Florida, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nevada make or break a national campaign.