An increasingly divisive debate is raging among politically engaged Latinos right now over how to respond to our political leaders' incapacity to reform our immigration system. This should worry politicians in general and Democrats in particular.
The frustration has simmered for years, but President Barack Obama offered the latest catalyst last month when he delayed a promised decision, for a second time, to use his executive authority to offer deportation relief to undocumented immigrants. During that time, tens of thousands of people will be deported, often slapped with a criminal charge of illegal entry and thrown in jail before being expelled.
The White House said it delayed the decision to avoid undermining vulnerable Democrats in several hard-fought Senate races in the upcoming midterm elections.
The move frustrated Latino groups across the board, from grassroots activists to the establishment politicians who make up the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. That should worry the White House, because many of these people helped in one way or another to propel Obama to office in 2008 and again in 2012, when Obama won a whopping 71 percent of the Hispanic vote.
Some, like Presente Action, have encouraged Latino voters to oppose Democrats perceived as anti-reform. Others, like Carlos Garcia of the organization Puente in Arizona, have urged Latinos to simply boycott the midterm elections if deportation relief isn't forthcoming, sending the message that Hispanic votes can't be taken for granted.
The idea of boycotting elections understandably concerns other Latino advocacy groups that have spent years on the ground trying to boost turnout among Hispanics, which remains notoriously low. Groups like the National Council of La Raza and Voto Latino have instead encouraged Latinos to realize their political power by showing up at the ballot box.
"Only by building our segment of the electorate can we change the bad politics practiced by both major parties that now stands in the way of needed policy changes on immigration reform and other issues," Maria Teresa Kumar, the president of Voto Latino, wrote in an article for MSNBC on Monday. "Our strength comes from voting for ourselves and not for politicians or political parties."
The vote is one of the most important keys to political power our representative system offers. The prospect that some potential Latino voters are so disillusioned that they won't make use of it should disturb us.
Some in the Democratic Party feel unfairly targeted, given that many Republicans have driven Hispanic voters away in droves by embracing harsh anti-immigration policies and offensive rhetoric. Since the child migrant crisis this summer, even one-time GOP leaders who backed reform, like U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) or John McCain (R-Ariz.) have now retreated, instead pushing to end the president's 2012 policy of deferring deportation for people brought here illegally as children.
But the fact of the matter is that if Democrats aren't energizing Latino voters, they should blame themselves.
They should blame themselves for failing to pass immigration reform when they controlled both houses of Congress and the presidency. They should blame their president for repeatedly declining to weaken the deportation apparatus that causes so much harm to the Hispanic community. They should blame the president's refusal, for a second time, to keep his word about following through on executive action on immigration in the face of Congressional gridlock.
When Democrats retreat on immigration reform, it leaves few options for Latino voters who care deeply about that issue. If those voters can't find candidates that reflect their values, it may be hard to convince them to cast a ballot for its own sake.
When polls indicate a crisis of confidence in the U.S. Congress, we generally lay the blame on our representatives for causing the problem -- not the electorate. But when Latino voters show the same crisis of confidence, many point their fingers at the voters rather than the officials who have done a poor job representing their constituents.
Any democratically minded person should want Hispanic political engagement and voter turnout to rise as high as possible. But when Hispanic voters stay home to oppose both major parties, that isn't always apathy -- sometimes it's a form of political protest, and one that both parties should take seriously. Latino votes, just like everyone else's, should not be taken for granted. They must be earned.