THE HISPANIC VOTE: Comprehensive Immigration Reform and the 2016 Presidential Race

Stephen Balkaran is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Fairfield University

Stephen Balkaran is a Lecturer in the Department of Political Science at Fairfield University

The political importance of securing an ethnic voting bloc has played and will continue to play an important role in our political electoral history. Very few Americans understand the current Hispanic-changing demographic trends, its implications, political importance and their electoral votes. This vote not only became a political weapon in 2012, but in 2016, the Hispanic vote will dictate who will become the future leader of the free world. The 2016 Presidential election has slowly but surely developed into a debate on the politics of immigration reform and the courting of Hispanic electoral votes. Never in American electoral history has an ethnic group become such an important part of the American electoral process that the future American president will be determined by its electorate. Despite this importance, central to the debates is comprehensive immigration reform, the politics of race and the political impact of the new Americans or those we often refer to as undocumented immigrants.  

Both Democrats and Republicans have acknowledged the importance of the Hispanic vote, and they have approached the new voting sector more cautiously as the 2013 Immigration Reform bill becomes a stumbling domestic policy for the potential presidential candidates. Very few candidates have addressed immigration reform with any constructive dialogue or solutions, and even those who have addressed immigration have doomed themselves to failure in the eyes of many Hispanics electorates, including presidential hopeful Donald Trump. 

The politics of immigration have never been so insightful that it has brought the worst out of us, what we stand for, and what we can become. Immigration has always been the basic DNA of America and affects the best of who we are and what we can become as an American society. The 2013 Immigration reform law has more implications for America’s future than many of us can foresee-socially, culturally and economically. The Hispanic political presence is already shaping and defining a new American political landscape. Whether we admit it or not, many of our immigration laws and the politics behind them have been historically woven with racial prejudice against recent immigrants. These anti-immigration laws all helped shape and define our political history and the way we view outsiders in a land that was built by many of these ethnic groups. Donald Trump’s racist remark reminds us that the hatred towards immi-grants is alive and well in a country that practices integration and acceptance of all. 

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Throughout history the U.S. immigration policies of welcoming other groups have been tainted with race-based policies, e.g., The Naturalization Act of 1790, which granted the rights of American citizenship to all “free white person.” The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which barred Chinese immigrants from becoming naturalized citizens. Moreover, Jewish immigrants and the Jewish community in America have faced discrimination ranging from hateful slurs to barring of their ships in U.S. ports pre- and post- Holocaust years. 

Very few Americans remember the historical racism that Mexican immigrants encountered in the early 1900’s. Then the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in 1916 began implementing a series of anti-health laws targeted at Mexican immigrants crossing the U.S.–Mexico border.

The health department and our government rationale was that Mexicans were bringing diseases into the United States. Therefore American health policies had to change in order to secure the border, protect Americans and keep Mexicans out of America. Another example of racist remarks and policy directed towards Mexican immigrants occurred in the 1929 stock market crash. This event led to the greatest depression in American history, a time when one out four Americans was unemployed, our economy shattered and confidence in American idealism was tested. As many Americans suffered from the economic depression, Mexican immigrants became the scapegoat for America’s economic, social and political problems. As a result, Mexican immigrants were denied jobs, subjected to raids, illegally arrested and detained without due process. As a result of this fear of immigrants, the American government from 1929 to 1939 deported some one to two million Mexican-American citizens and legal residents of Mexican descent. This mass deportation was known as the Mexican Repatriation policy with the aim of cleansing America’s ill. These policies, along with other racist ideologies, continued to persist throughout the 1930’s, 40’s, 50’s and ‘60’s. 

Fast forward to the 21st century, and the political debacle of the current immigration debate has left the United States of America divided along racial, ethnic and political lines, never seen before in our great country. Not only has the debate gone beyond the boundaries of our political spectrum, it has left the American people and America’s political parties scrambling to maintain a sense of what true democracy can be. As both political parties implement their 2016 political agendas, they are facing an increasingly tough decision whether or not to support a Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill that will define the future American President and America’s new political clout---the Hispanic vote. Their decision will ultimately lead to a backlash from their own constituents and those in favor of impeding efforts to provide a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants living in America. 

The growth of the Hispanic electorate will be an important factor in an increasing number of congressional and presidential races across the country in the 2016 elections and beyond. More numbers mean more votes. States like California, New Mexico, Texas, Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, New York, New Jersey and Nevada will now have an important and decisive Hispanic vote. This vote will dictate the future of elections and political parties where the voting power will be held by swing Hispanic votes. The Hispanic electorate now represents swing votes in some 14 states and can increase to 16 states by the presidential election of 2016. The 2013 American Progress report on the Growth of Hispanic Electorate in Key States concluded that “given the Hispanic population’s rapid growth, its political influence will be greater in 2016 elections; over the next four years the Hispanic voters nationwide is projected to increase by four million peoplean increase by 17 percent. The Hispanic community’s influence is even more pronounced at the state level and key states where the growth of Hispanic eligible voters is outpacing all other groups.” This increased population growth along with immigration reform will bring more votes to the table, and how to attract those voters becomes a political chess game for both Democrats and Republicans in future elections. Moreover, how both parties handle the issue of comprehensive immigration reform will have a serious impact on Hispanic political voting behavior in 2016 presidential and future elections. 

The Republican Party has already acknoledged that to win back the American presidency, they must make enormous gains in the Hispanic community, a voting bloc that only committed 27 percent of their votes to the Republicans in 2012 presidential election. This backlash was solely based on the self-deportation policy the Republican Party took on the immigration issue, which infuriated the Hispanic voting bloc. The Democratic Party prides itself as the party for Hispanics, yet they have failed to deliver any sought of immigration reform that is meaningful to secure the loyalty of the Hispanic vote. The growing presence of the Hispanic community will have profound political consequences on both political parties and the future immigration reform policy agenda will play an important part in defining the future American political process.

History reminds us that the mobilization of the Hispanic votes and their response to anti-immigrant polices can be detrimental for a political party.  Both political parties must be cautious and reflect on California’s Proposition 187, an anti-immigrant policy, which outlawed affirmative action and bilingual programs in the early 1990s, and its long term effect on the Republican Party that sponsored the legislation. At a time when the Hispanic electoral was only 10 percent of the state population, this anti-immigrant policy began to mobilize California’s Hispanic community, and by 2012 some 70 percent of Hispanics identified with the Democratic Party. Hispanics not only began taking part in the electoral process but voted heavily Democratic; this anti-immigrant policy awoke the sleeping giant in California-the Hispanic vote. 

California’s political landscape was never the same and became heavily democratic as a result of Proposition 187 anti-immigrant policy directed towards Hispanics. Not only did it mobilize the Hispanic vote in California, it destroyed their relationship with the Republican Party and alienated the party from an important voting bloc for future elections. Some 20 years after Proposition 187, Hispanics are California’s largest voting bloc and the political representation in the state has since doubled among their legislators. This is a clear sign that the mobilization of one of America’s greatest political assets can be detrimental to any political party that opposes them with their anti-immigrant policies. 

The Hispanic debates go far beyond the typical immigration debates on loss of jobs, drugs, drain on our social system, criminals etc.; it has now manifested on the “Browning of America.” The economic, political and social clout of current immigrants is far more beneficial to the nation than media critics point out. Hispanics and their votes are fast becoming the new cornerstone of America’s political, socio-economic power and based on their potential, no other immigrant group in the history of our great nation has the potential to redefine the political structure of America. Despite their socio-economic and political influence, the debates are focus on the issue of race-based immigration policies rather than the rich, great diverse culture that Hispanics bring to our great country and add to the true American ideology of a melting pot.

Whatever the debates might be, neither political party can afford to ignore or play with the Hispanic vote. Immigration reform is a key tool to courting America’s greatest political asset and the future of the American presidency. How and when both political parties address immigration reform remains a struggle; there must be a common-sense ideology on immigration reform by both the Democratic and Republican parties. There must be a sensible solution to the civil rights issue of the 21st century---immigration reform. Failure to do so and to court the Hispanic vote can lead to catastrophic alienation of both political parties and their future in American politics.