Courting the Latino vote in the U.S. presidential race

Romney and Obama vie for support with immigration and education proposals
FILE -- Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, campaigns in Naples, Fla., Jan. 29, 2012. Romney is trying to shift the debate away from the harsh immigration rhetoric of the primaries to focus on jobs and the economy in order to make inroads with Hispanic voters in Central Florida. (Todd Heisler/The New York Times
Wanted: Hispanic voters
Todd Heisler/The New York Times

They are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. electorate, but one of the hardest to lure into the voting booth. About 22 million Hispanic-Americans will be eligible to vote this November, an increase of 3.5 million since the last presidential election. If they show up, they could account for 10 per cent of voters at the polls—and an even larger share in crucial battleground states like Florida, New Mexico, Nevada and Colorado.

In a presidential race that remains a statistical tie, then, they could make the difference. And as President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, the presumptive Republican nominee, struggle for their support, they are tossing around immigration policy proposals that could have big implications for Canada.

Most Hispanic voters lean Democratic, and Obama won just over two-thirds of their ballots in 2008. Romney knows he is unlikely to win a majority of their vote—but he doesn’t need to. George W. Bush, a Republican, southern-border state governor who won over many Hispanic voters with his push for bilingual education and promise of immigration reform, was able to get 40 per cent of their vote in 2004, and win re-election. And the Obama campaign has to worry about a repeat of the 2010 mid-term election results—when many Democratic supporters, including many Hispanics, stayed home and Republicans took over the House of Representatives.

Their vote is clearly “very important,” says Peter Brown, assistant director of Quinnipiac University’s Polling Institute in Connecticut. “The question is whether Romney can do what Bush did.” So far, the answer is no.

Obama’s emerging re-election strategy is aimed at recapturing some of 2008’s enthusiasm in part by delivering symbolic victories to key groups that helped get him elected. He endorsed gay marriage for gay-rights voters—and donors—and delayed approval of the Keystone XL pipeline for the environmental groups. But while Obama had made history by appointing the first Latina judge to the U.S. Supreme Court (Sonia Sotomayor, who is of Puerto Rican descent), he failed to deliver on two top issues for Hispanic advocates: a comprehensive immigration reform that would include a path to citizenship for the U.S.’s estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants, and passage of the so-called DREAM Act, that would allow young people brought to the U.S. as children to stay and work legally. Moreover, he angered Hispanic groups by ramping up deportations of unauthorized immigrants, and conducting workplace raids on employers suspected of hiring undocumented workers.

Aware that the stage was set for potential Hispanic voter apathy, Obama made a political gamble in June by announcing a unilateral policy change to help young, undocumented immigrants. It would exempt young unauthorized immigrants from deportation for two years and issue them work permits. “We’re lifting the shadow of deportation from deserving young people who were brought to this country as children,” Obama said.

While outraged critics contended that Obama had exceeded his authority as president with the unilateral directive, initial polling suggests that he is succeeding in consolidating Hispanic support: in Florida, Hispanic support rose from 49 to 56 per cent after the announcement. But getting these supporters to show up at the polls is another matter. Only about 50 per cent actually register to vote, compared to almost 70 per cent for eligible whites and African Americans.

The “big question” is whether Obama’s unilateral move on unauthorized immigrants will make the difference, says Mark Lopez, associate director of the Pew Hispanic Center, a non-partisan, non-advocacy research centre.

For now, it has had the effect of forcing Romney to choose between the prospect of angering either Hispanic or conservative voters, who oppose any form of ?“amnesty” for illegal immigrants. Pressed to explain whether he would revoke Obama’s directive helping the young unauthorized immigrants who arrived as children, Romney has been vague, saying mainly that he would replace Obama’s two-year reprieve with his own permanent solution. What that would be, he hasn’t said.

During the race for the Republican nomination, Romney’s rhetoric on immigration had grown tougher and tougher as he sought to burnish his conservative credentials: he emphasized his desire to build a wall along the border with Mexico and to crack down on employers who hire undocumented workers. He pledged to veto the DREAM Act and supported part of Arizona’s controversial immigration law that made it a state criminal offense to be an undocumented immigrant. The Obama administration challenged the constitutionality of the law (which Hispanics oppose overwhelmingly), and in June the U.S. Supreme Court struck much of it down.

This state of affairs has sparked speculation that Romney may choose to name a game-changing Hispanic running mate. Marco Rubio, a Cuban-American Florida Senator with Tea Party credentials and an idea for his own version of the DREAM Act is frequently mentioned. But because Cuban-Americans received special immigration treatment and consider themselves to be exiles, not immigrants, Rubio’s appeal among Mexican-Americans, the bulk of Hispanic voters, is unclear. Indeed, polls suggest Rubio is relatively unknown outside Florida.

Meanwhile, Romney has been making his appeal to Hispanic voters the same way he has to other Americans—by attacking the weak economy under Obama. “Hispanics have been hit disproportionately hard,” Romney said in a speech to the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials last month. He noted there are 2 million more Hispanics living in poverty today than when Obama took office. Ignoring the role of Republican senators in blocking the DREAM Act, he also accused Obama of ignoring his immigration promises once in office. “For two years, this President had huge majorities in the House and Senate—he was free to pursue any policy he pleased. But he did nothing to advance a permanent fix for our broken immigration system. Instead, he failed to act until facing a tough re-election and trying to secure your vote,” Romney said.

The former Massachusetts governor also outlined some expansive immigration proposals of his own. He wants to make it easier for immigrants to bring their spouses and children into the country to “live under one roof.” Romney also proposed to “staple a green card” to the diplomas of foreign students who earn advanced degrees in the U.S. “We want the best and brightest to enrich the nation through the jobs and technologies they will help create.”

Obama has complained that the U.S. system “allows the best and brightest to study here, but then tells them to leave, start companies somewhere else.” A policy of automatic permanent residency to foreign students would have “fairly large implications for Canada,” which has sought to attract skilled workers from around the world by taking steps to help foreign students settle permanently in Canada after graduation, says Christopher Warwick, an immigration economist at Carleton University. For foreign students choosing between the U.S. and Canada, “the knowledge that you could get permanent residency and a path to citizenship makes the U.S. more attractive,” he says.

It could also mean more Canadian students would seek to study and stay in the U.S., sparking a “brain drain.” Already, the largest source of foreign-born, masters and PhD students in the U.S. come from Canadian schools, says Don DeVoretz, an economics professor emeritus at Simon Fraser University who specializes in immigration. “This,” he says “would accelerate it.”

Whatever their impact on Canada, the question remains whether policy jousting over immigration will win over Hispanics. “The assumption is that immigration is the big thing that matters,” says Brown at the Polling Institute. “But we don’t really know. Hispanic voters, like everyone else, have to deal with economy. It could trump everything.”