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.