Memo to the GOP: Be nice to Latinos. We come in peace. The fastest-growing demographic in the United States handed Mitt Romney the defeat he requested. Gracias, de nada.
Exit polls indicate Latino voters were decisive in turning Nevada, Colorado and Florida over to the president. For the first time, Latinos’ share of the electorate reached double digits: We cast 10 percent of all votes.
A full 71 percent of Latinos voted for Barack Obama, an increase from 67 percent in 2008.
Not that Obama has done Latinos many favors. He has failed to deliver on his campaign promise of 2008 to reform the nation’s dysfunctional immigration system. His administration has deported more undocumented immigrants than any other in history.
He has authorized building detention centers, holding prisons for undocumented immigrants awaiting deportation, as if they were handing out zoning approvals for fast-food restaurants.
Yet despite everything, Latinos handed Barack Obama the White House again.
Why? Because the Democrats and Obama can still make a convincing case that immigration reform is important to them. They have declared their support for the DREAM Act, which would provide a path to legal status for people brought here illegally as children, providing they meet certain criteria. The president and his party have stood for legal protections against discrimination and for policies that improve the lives of wage earners.
They have by and large treated Latino Americans as a respected segment of the nation’s body politic.
The same has not been true of the GOP. During the long campaign that just ended, if you wanted to know what Republican candidates thought of Latinos, pretty much the only reference point was their fulmination about illegal immigration.
Let’s recall Romney on the campaign trail, pitching the idea that undocumented immigrants would self-deport. Why would they do that? Because his immigration policies were going to make life unpleasant enough for these people that they would pack up and leave.
Right. Immigrants who willingly spent weeks traveling by foot to come to the United States, who risked being killed by drug runners or some other lethal fate along the way, are not people easily deterred. Families with U.S.-born children to support do not flee because a municipality makes it difficult for them to sign up for utilities or obtain a driver’s license.
Yet Romney bought into this half-baked theory promoted by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The latter, an up-and-coming GOP insider, also helped craft Arizona’s controversial laws on immigration. Romney praised those travesties of public policy, too, portions of which have been declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court.
As it happens, while immigration has become something of a political litmus test for Latino voters, it’s not their greatest concern. In exit polls, they consistently cited education, health care, the economy, crime and jobs as the political issues most important to them. Not immigration.
Yet the reality is, even in our Post-Racial Presidency Part II, that too many Americans still see brown. They hear a Spanish surname and immediately think “immigrant and Spanish-speaking.”
They tend to lump all Latinos together, whether they are Cuban, Salvadoran or Guatemalan. They find it hard to distinguish a second-generation Latino from one whose family has lived in Texas since before it was the Lone Star State. .
So when Latinos hear the sort of inhumane barbs that came out in the GOP primary debates — talk of electrified fences and crazy notions that the federal government should or could erect a fortified wall at the southern border — ears prick up. Then the skin begins to crawl.
Recall that not only did the GOP candidates stand by as these vile comments were made. They upped the ante. Romney the nominee began talking about vetoing the DREAM Act — which was once sponsored and touted by Republicans.
Republicans haven’t always been this cold and irrational. Whatever one may think of Ronald Reagan, recall that he authorized the last immigrant amnesty program. These days, amnesty is a scarlet A-word in his party. Is it any wonder that so many Latinos took a pass on Romney?
If the GOP wants to have a shot at governing this country in the coming decades, they will have to shed their stereotyped thinking and understand the Latino electorate. Growth in the U.S. Latino population now is due mostly to births in this country, not new migrants.
As U.S.-born and naturalized citizens, Latinos will play a large role in America’s future. Republicans need not fear this. Indeed, they would be wise to find new ways to appeal this voting bloc. It’s a matter of respect.
MARY SANCHEZ writes for The Kansas City Star. Her column is distributed by Tribune Media Services Inc. Her e-mail address is at firstname.lastname@example.org .