Latinos and the 2012 Election – Lessons from 1996
Terri E. Givens
It’s mid-September and the presidential campaigns are moving into high gear. It is clear that both parties are trying to court the Latino vote (acknowledging the diversity within this category), with Latino politicians playing a prominent role in both the Republican and Democratic conventions. The latest polls show that President Obama is maintaining a strong lead over Mitt Romney among Latinos. Vice President Joe Biden told the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute’s audience, “Ladies and gentlemen, you are about to become, and already have, the most powerful force in American politics,” at their recent gala. Despite this, neither candidate has talked much about immigration – not necessarily a top issue in comparison to the economy, but still an important to many Latinos. This summer President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, which falls far short of what is called for in the DREAM Act. Mitt Romney mainly played to his base early in the campaign and came out against an amnesty for the millions of undocumented immigrants in the country, while supporting high-skilled immigration. Despite the fact that comprehensive immigration reform has been a bi-partisan issue, it’s clear that it will take more motivation on the part of Republicans in Congress to move forward legislation that will address the main problems with our immigration system.
Like many immigrant groups before them, Latinos are moving into a position to influence elections in many states beyond places like Texas, California and New York, where they already have strong influence. I was in graduate school in California in the mid-1990s when then Republican Governor Pete Wilson pushed forward an anti-immigrant agenda with Proposition 187 which would have denied undocumented immigrants and their children welfare benefits and access to public schools. Wilson was re-elected in 1994 and Prop 187 passed with nearly 60% of the vote. Much like today’s SB1070, it seemed like a restrictionist tide was heading across the country. Pete Wilson was unable to turn his success in California to success as a presidential candidate, but the Republican platform in 1996 called for legislation that would bar the children of undocumented immigrants from public schools.
However, these restrictive moves prompted increased naturalizations, helped by President Clinton’s Citizenship USA initiative in 1995, and subsequent increased voter registration in the Latino community. Mexican Americans in particular voted in record numbers in the 1996 presidential election. Clinton won handily, including in California, and naturalizations continued to increase, particularly as permanent residents were being restricted from getting certain welfare benefits under welfare reform. George W. Bush was much more conciliatory towards immigrants, and worked much harder at getting the Latino vote than Bob Dole had in 1996. Once he became president, he was on course to work with Mexican President Vicente Fox on immigration issues, but 9/11 put an immediate stop to those efforts.
Latino voters were successful in shifting the agenda on immigration in 1996. With the wave of anti-immigrant bills being passed in state legislatures over the past few years, the question is whether the Latino vote will once again have an impact. As with Proposition 187, most of the components of SB 1070 have been found unconstitutional. In California, Governor Jerry Brown is pursuing a much more immigrant friendly agenda and is considering whether to sign the TRUST Act which would limit local law enforcement cooperation with federal authorities through the Secure Communities program. In Texas, Republicans have been much more conciliatory on the immigration issue, while promoting the careers of Republicans like Senate candidate Ted Cruz. Although some are arguing that the Latino vote won’t grow much, if at all in the November election it’s often at the margins where the vote matters, particularly in swing states like Iowa. Turnout will not only have an impact on the current election, it will have a major impact on the direction of policy for many years to come.