There is such a thing as ‘the Latino vote’ — and Republicans should be scared

Stanley Renshon at the “Center for Immigration Studies,” which masquerades as a mainstream think tank but is really just another front for the anti-immigrant movement, takes issue with a Politico story by Ben Smith about the Hispanic electorate and the influence anti-immigrant laws like SB 1070 in Arizona have had on their voting patterns. It’s an incoherent, rambling critique that seeks to downplay Hispanics as a voting bloc and the importance of immigration issues to this community.

As any immigration researcher knows, “Hispanic” is a made-in-America term, not one that persons from the various countries and cultures that make up the category use. They do not all think alike, regardless of what the Robert Menendezes of the world would have us believe. …

Americans, and this includes “Hispanics,” are fair people and it would be very hard to sustain the view that “our people” ought to have a primary role in immigration policy, almost to the extent of exclusivity.

Just as a factual matter, the term “Hispanic” — like “Latino” — is indeed used by people who hail from different parts of Latin America. I can say this as the child of Hispanic immigrants, but you needn’t look any further than any of the numerous Spanish-language publications that cater to this community — El Hispanico, Tiempo Latino, Hispanidad, or even the Washington Hispanic. It’s true that it’s a term used primarily in America, but that’s because in Latin America, most everyone’s Latino. But that’s beside the point. What Renshon is really railing against is the idea that people who hail — or whose parents hail — from Latin America form a cohesive class that will punish either the Republicans or Democrats for failing to reform the immigration system, which includes a plan to give people who’ve come here illegally the chance to become citizens. That’s a scary thought to those who oppose comprehensive immigration reform.

To a certain degree, Renshon has a point. Latino voters do not all think alike; for instance, the Cuban population in Florida has for some time skewed to the right, whereas voters of Mexican descent tend to vote for Democrats. You can’t just gloss over the fact that those who hail from Colombia have an affinity for, and a shared cultural understanding with, their fellow Colombians that they don’t share with someone who grew up in, say, Argentina. It’s also true, as the post says, that Latino voters care about education, the economy, and all the other issues that the rest of Americans do.

But if there’s a surefire way to make groups forget their differences and band together, it’s to attack them, which is exactly what laws like Arizona’s SB 1070 have done. Those who have defended the law claim that Latinos who are here legally have nothing to worry about. But that’s not true for two reasons. One, the law — which the overwhelming majority of Latinos see as a racially motivated attack — requires the police to check the immigration status of anyone they “suspect” is here illegally. And who do you think they’re going to check? Unless a police officer knows beforehand whether someone is here legally or not — which would defeat the entire purpose of asking — it’s going to be anyone who “looks” Latino. Indeed, when the law was first written it explicitly allowed officers to take race into consideration. It was amended thereafter to include factors that are a rough proxy for race, including (from the state’s training manual) trouble speaking English, “being in an overcrowded vehicle,” “being in a location known for unlawfully present aliens,” and “dress.” (According to California’s Brian Bilbray, “They will look at the kind of dress you wear, there’s different type of attire, there’s different type of…right down to the shoes, right down to the clothes.”) Were it really not about racism, we’d be talking about identifying people based on how they say the word “about,” but we’re not.

But Latinos who are here legally are also worried about their family members who may be here illegally; you don’t just cut off all ties with where you came from once you become a citizen. And in many cases, someone who is here legally will be joined by a spouse who has chosen to break the law rather than wait several years to be reunited with their loved ones (this is also why many of my friends who have married a noncitizen — and these are people with Ph.D.s — have preferred to move to Israel or England with their spouse instead of going through our dysfunctional immigration process).

So sure, all Latinos don’t think alike, but the vast majority don’t think, as the people at CIS do, that they deserve to be targeted because they look or dress differently, and many know through first- or second- hand experience that the problem with the immigration system is not that we’re not deporting enough people. (If you want to know what the real problems are, look at this report from the Immigration Policy Center).

I’ll of course agree that I’m a unique little snowflake. But as someone who grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border, speaks Spanish, and quite often gets asked where I’m “from,” I can’t help feeling some solidarity with those who weren’t, by pure luck of birth, born on the U.S. side of the border. And when I go to the voting booth, I keep in mind who’s been trying to repeal birthright citizenship because “anchor babies” are about to take over the country.

Gabriel Arana is a senior editor at The American Prospect in Washington, D.C. His pieces have appeared in The Nation, Slate, The Advocate, the Daily Beast, and other publications. He is a graduate of Yale University and a native of Nogales, Arizona.

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