The cresting of the great generation-long wave of legal and illegal immigration from Mexico won't meaningfully affect the political leverage of Hispanics in the U.S. for decades, if ever. But some Hispanic leaders worry that their political influence will ebb in November nonetheless.
The Pew Hispanic Center drew widespread attention last month when it reported that the seemingly unending migration flow that had brought some 12 million Mexicans, both legally and illegally, to the U.S. over the past four decades had ceased, if not reversed. Using census and other data from both nations, Pew estimated that from 2005 to 2010, 1.37 million Mexicans arrived in the U.S. (both legally and illegally) while 1.39 million Mexicans already in the U.S. migrated in the opposite direction. "While it is not possible to say so with certainty," Pew concluded, "the trend lines within this latest five-year period suggest that return flow to Mexico probably exceeded the inflow from Mexico during the past year or two."
If sustained, this trend will affect the growth of the Mexican-American population over the long term (especially the very long term). But most experts agree it will have little impact on the evolution of the Hispanic electorate in the U.S. for at least the next several decades.
"If you are talking a whole generation out, say 2050, it does make a difference," says Jeffrey Passel, the Pew senior demographer who wrote the study. "But if you are talking about 8, 10, 12 years, the answer is: probably not very much."
The reason is that immigration is no longer the key to the growth of the Mexican-American population overall, and it is even less important to the rise of Hispanics in the electorate. As Pew calculated in 2011, new immigrants accounted for only a little over one-third of the 11.4 million increase in the Mexican-American population from 2000 to 2010. By contrast, Mexican-American children born in the U.S. represented 63 percent of the group's growing population over that decade.
Children born in America are citizens by birthright, whatever the immigration status of their parents. And it is those young people, far more than immigrants, who are expected to power the growth of the Hispanic electorate in the coming years. Pew calculates that as many as half of all Mexican immigrants are in the U.S. illegally--which means, of course, that they cannot vote. And many of those who are here legally have not completed the naturalization process required to become citizens-and voters.
Similar issues, to varying extent, affect the other groups of Hispanics in the U.S. Overall, Brookings Institution demographer William H. Frey calculates that only about two-thirds of the 32.4 million Hispanics older than age 18 are citizens (and thus eligible to vote).
The story is very different, though, with the huge under-18 Hispanic population. Those young people represent over one-third of all Hispanics. And by Frey's calculation, fully 93 percent of them are citizens. That means they are automatically eligible to register to vote once they turn 18. They don't need to undertake the intermediate step of pursuing citizenship because they are American citizens by birth.
"The biggest gains in the Hispanic population are coming from young people who are now living here, are born here, and are now turning 18," Frey says. "And that population is going to continue to shoot up."
How much will that population "shoot up"? Mark Hugo Lopez, the Pew Hispanic Center's associate director, says that from 50,000 to 60,000 young Hispanics born in the U.S. now turn "every month. And we will continue to see that pattern for the next 20 or 30 years." Leaving aside any additional numbers provided by naturalization, that growth alone would increase the number of Hispanics eligible to vote by at least 600,000 annually for decades. And given the number of Hispanic births in the U.S., Passel says the number of Hispanics annually reaching 18 could actually increase beyond its current level in the next few decades.
If the immigration slowdown persists, though, it would eventually suppress those numbers. Several decades down the road, lower immigration levels would reduce the number of potential Hispanic voters because fewer immigrants (whether legal or legal) would mean fewer children born in the U.S., Passel notes. "Out 40, 50, 60 years, it does begin to add up," he says.
Passel hasn't yet tried to calculate how the immigration slowdown, if sustained, would affect the overall growth of the Hispanic population. But in a 2008 study, Pew projected that under a low-immigration scenario the Hispanic population would rise from about 16 percent of the U.S. total today to 26 percent by 2050. That's only slightly less than the 29 percent it projects under their baseline scenario, which underscores the primacy of natural increase in enlarging this population.
Although the translation of that population growth into political power has been a fitful process for Hispanics, its trajectory has been steadily up for the past several decades. Now there's a quiet concern among many Hispanic leaders that 2012 might stall that process.
The raw material for greater influence is unquestionably in place. The number of Hispanics eligible to vote increased from 16 million in 2004 to 19.5 million in 2008. Lopez projects that about 22 million Hispanics will be eligible to vote this year, and Frey believes the final number will approach 24 million. (As a share of the total eligible voter population, Hispanics will increase from 9.5 percent in 2008 to 10.7 percent in 2012, according to Frey's calculations.)
But Hispanic registration is not keeping pace. The number of Hispanics registered to vote grew from 9.3 million to 11.6 million from 2004 to 2008. But in 2010, Hispanic registrations declined to 10.9 million, according to Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which studies Hispanic political participation.
Gonzalez says that decline is most likely rooted in "the crushing weight of unemployment and home loss" that has compelled many Hispanics to move or otherwise disrupted their lives. "There's musical chairs in the Hispanic community," he says. "That's crushing. None of us foresaw it. It should have occurred to us that there are political consequences to policy failure even in voter registration."
At one point, Gonzalez predicted that 12 million Hispanics would vote in 2012, up from just under 10 million in 2008 and about 7.6 million in 2004. Now he thinks it unlikely to reach such a peak. While there will be a "surge" in Hispanic voter registration this year, Gonzalez says, it will begin from the depressed level it reached after 2010. And that ultimately will yield a harvest of around 11 million Hispanic voters this fall, and possibly less, he says. Concerted registration and turnout efforts from Democrats likely will enlarge Hispanic participation in a few key states, especially Southwestern states like Arizona and Nevada, but unless something changes, Gonzalez predicts, "We won't be turbocharged as a national electorate."
By contrast, the National Association of Latino Elected Officials Educational Fund still projects that 12.2 million Hispanics will vote in 2012, a robust 26 percent increase from 2008. Arturo Vargas, the group's executive director says that estimate is actually "conservative": in the past three presidential elections, the group's methodology has actually underestimated the number of Hispanics who actually voted, he points out.
Vargas says predictions of diminished Hispanic turnout underestimate the impact of congressional redistricting, which will compel both Hispanic incumbents and challengers to work harder than usual to mobilize voters in the redrawn districts. "This is a unique election because we have open Congressional seats where Latinos are running and they are hustling voters on the ground," Vargas says. "We are going to have even Latino incumbents campaigning like they haven't before because they have significant new territory in their districts."
For Hispanic advocacy groups, the stakes in November's turnout could hardly be greater. During the GOP primaries this year, Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, moved sharply to the right on an array of immigration issues, from promising to veto the Dream Act for young people brought to the U.S. illegally by their parents, to endorsing Arizona's tough anti-immigration law, to pledging an enforcement regime tough enough to compel illegal immigrants to "self-deport."
Without exception, most Hispanic advocacy groups have loudly condemned all of those policies. Polls show that President Obama, when matched against Romney, almost always equaling (if not exceeding) the commanding two-thirds of the Hispanic vote that he won in 2008. But disappointing Hispanic turnout could muffle the impact of that advantage. It also would likely tilt the GOP's internal balance further toward conservative hard-liners on immigration. If Hispanic voters can't impose an electoral price for the sort of aggressive policies that Romney has endorsed, the odds are high that more Republicans will also embrace them.
National Journal researcher William Friedman contributed
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.