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Hispanic Political Clout May Ebb in November

New United States citizens Jenette Chavez, 18, left, and Josue Cano, 20, fill out forms as they register to vote at the Lloyd D. George federal courthouse in Las Vegas on Friday, Aug. 22, 2008. Supporters of Barack Obama and John McCain are fighting for every voter this campaign, and naturalized citizens of Hispanic descent are a growing target. (AP Photo/Isaac Brekken)
National Journal
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
May 4, 2012, 3:44 a.m.

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

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