Latinos Are Primed and Ready for Immigration Reform

National Journal

"The Latino giant is wide awake, cranky, and is taking names. We are now a part of history and the political future of this country."

That's Eliseo Medina, the Service Employees International Union secretary-treasurer, a longtime advocate of immigration reform. He may be sleep-deprived after a long night of election returns, but he has a right to be cranky. He went out on a limb in 2007 when the Senate was debating immigration legislation that President Bush created. SEIU endorsed a plan that included guest workers, a taboo in the labor movement. The AFL-CIO was furious. The immigration bill died anyway because Republicans walked away at the last minute.

Medina's comment on Wednesday, after President Obama won a second term and Hispanics turned out in droves to help him, shows an aggressiveness that was not evident in 2007 when Bush was on their side. Hispanic voters want their worries about immigration to be shared by everyone else, and they aren't being shy about saying so.

"The road to the White House goes through Hispanic neighborhoods," said Clarissa Martinez, the director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. "Latinos are pragmatic. We are prepared to roll up our sleeves and solve problems. "¦ Immigration has risen to the No. 2 spot and stayed there for the last couple of years."

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Ben Monterroso, the national executive director of Mi Familia Vota Education Fund, declared: "Our community has spoken loud and clear. We want jobs. We want good jobs. We also want immigration reform."

Immigration is the key to winning over Hispanic voters, who tend to be more conservative on fiscal and social issues than most Democrats. They vote for Democrats anyway. "Curiously, both political parties have regularly gotten this wrong, believing you can separate immigration from the Latino vote," said Gary Segura, who runs the Hispanic opinion research firm Latino Decisions and is a political science professor at Stanford University.

Hispanic voters say their No. 1 concern is jobs and the economy, which is similar to the opinions of non-Hispanic voters. But a candidate's position on the economy alone doesn't usually sway people, according to Segura. If you lean Democratic, you think that Obama can fix the economy. If you lean Republican, you think that the recession is Obama's fault. When it comes to all but a few swing voters, the candidates' economic plans are a wash.

Immigration is different. It is the second-biggest concern among Latinos. Sixty percent of Latino voters know someone who is undocumented and 90 percent of them have parents or grandparents who emigrated from another country. Republican nominee Mitt Romney's statement that illegal immigrants should "self-deport" was not an abstract concept for Hispanics. It referred to their parents, their aunts and uncles, or their boyfriends and girlfriends. "After the GOP primaries, there was nothing Romney could do to get our vote," Medina said.

According to Latino Decisions data, 31 percent of Hispanic voters would have been more likely to vote for Republicans if the GOP had taken a lead on broad immigration reform. "In 2004, President Bush received 40 percent of the Latino vote. Mitt Romney got 23 percent. That's 17 percent of the Latino electorate forfeited," Segura said.

Polling from Latino Decisions shows that 75 percent of Hispanic voters cast their ballots for Obama, representing a 5.4-percentage-point margin in favor of the president. Had Hispanic votes split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, Romney would have won the popular vote, according to Segura. Other exit polls put Latino voters for Obama at 71 percent, but Segura believes those figures to be underestimated.

Either way, the preference for Obama among Hispanics is clear. They are now doggedly looking to turn his victory into a mandate for immigration reform. If their grassroots tenacity before the election is any indication, they will not let up until it happens.