Hispanic Immigration Boom A ‘Wedge Issue’ For U.S. Politicians

Hispanic immigration boom a wedge issue for U.S. politicians

Sheldon Alberts,
CanWest News Service
Published: Friday, August 31, 2007

WASHINGTON — When the Miami-based television network Univision announced last month it would hold the first Spanish-language presidential campaign debates in U.S. history, its executives advertised the forums as a golden opportunity for candidates to woo Americas fastest-growing bloc of voters, Hispanics.

Then they started getting rejection letters.

First Democrat Hillary Clinton said no. Then Republican front-runners Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney took a pass on the debates.

We should not be doing things that encourage people to stay separate in a separate language, said Republican presidential candidate Tom Tancredo, a five-term Colorado congressman, who also declined Univisions invitation.

The tepid reaction among White House contenders highlights the political sensitivity surrounding the issue of Hispanic immigration, which ranks second only to the war in Iraq as the most volatile topic of the 2008 presidential campaign.

More than any other domestic issue, say political analysts, the question of how to deal with the explosion of Spanish-speaking immigrants has the potential to make or break a candidates chances of winning the White House.

A new study released this week by the Center for Immigration Studies projected that the U.S. will add 105 million new immigrants by 2060 if current trends continue, pushing the nations population to 468 million.

Its estimated about 38 million of those new residents will be illegal immigrants, according to the study, which was based on U.S. census reports. Another 22 million will be U.S.-born descendants of illegal immigrants.

Over that same period of time, the report said, the number of Hispanics is set to double to 30 per cent of the U.S. population.

If you are very concerned in America about issues like congestion, pollution, sprawl and loss of open space, then the situation is very urgent and a different immigration policy would almost certainly make sense, says CIS research director Steven Camarota.

The study doesnt tell us what we ought to do. What it tells us is where we are headed as a country. The question for the American people is: do we want to go there?

As Americans contemplate the impact on the countrys culture, economy and environment that a huge population increase will bring, emotions are running high on both sides of the debate.

All the candidates are all nervous about it, says Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. Immigration is deeply divisive. For every vote you pick up you are likely to lose a vote. Naturally, candidates avoid it like the bubonic plague.

Just ask Republican John McCain about the perils of taking a stand. The Arizona senators campaign, already suffering because of his support for the U.S. troop surge in Iraq, went into freefall this summer amid conservative anger over his support for legislation that would have granted a form of amnesty for the 12 million illegal immigrants currently in the country.

The immigration issue has caused me some difficulties with our base, McCain admits.

Giuliani, too, has come under frequent attack from his GOP opponents, who say his lax enforcement as mayor of New York made the city a haven for illegal immigrants.

On the one hand, Republicans and Democrats alike are keen to gain support among the nine million Hispanics who are currently registered to vote. President George W. Bush made huge inroads among Hispanics in the 2000 and 2004 elections, winning about 40 per cent of the Latino vote.

But courting Hispanic voters by supporting liberal immigration policies comes with the risk of alienating the broader electorate. Only 22 per cent of Americans favoured recent legislation that would have granted illegal immigrants a path to citizenship, according to a Rasmussen Reports poll in July. The bill died in the U.S. Senate.

It is hard to see how we move off this political stalemate, says Camarota.

Immigration supporters say public concern about the expanding Hispanic population is driven by irrational fear – the same kind that took hold during past immigration booms that brought waves of eastern European and Irish immigrants to the U.S. in the early 20th century.

Its like when the first Europeans came over on the Mayflower and the Indians saw them, I guarantee you someone said There goes the neighbourhood, says Ben Wattenberg, a demographer at the American Enterprise Institute. Everybody says its a disaster, but our population has gone from 3.9 million in 1790 to over 300 million today. Thats the largest population explosion for any country in the history of the world, and in that time we became a prosperous, free nation.

With Republican candidates fearful of making a blunder that might anger the partys base, only McCain agreed to participate in Univisions planned Sept. 16 GOP Spanish-language debate. The debate was cancelled.

The Democratic debate is set to go ahead after Clinton, who leads her opponents in polls of Hispanic voters, had a change of heart and agreed to attend.

Right now I think Republicans are more endangered on the issue, says Sabato, because their opposition to amnesty for illegal immigrants is alienating Hispanics who voted for Bush.

Where Republicans stand to gain is among voters in the rapidly growing U.S. southwest, where rural conservative and suburban whites cite illegal immigration as a top priority.

Its a much bigger issue in the Republican primaries than the Democratic primaries, Sabato says. Its a wedge issue. It can produce votes for a candidate who sounds like hes getting tough on border security and immigration.

But Republicans ignore the long-term demographic trends at their peril, says Sabato.

The CIS immigration report estimates the population of non-Hispanic whites will fall to 49 per cent in 2050 and 45 per cent in 2060 from 66 per cent today.

The study also showed Americas black population is likely to remain stagnant, growing to 13.1 per cent from 12.7 per cent of the population by 2060. The population of Asian-Americans is expected to grow to nine per cent from 4.5 per cent in 2007.

By the year 2050, whites are going to be the minority in this country, says Sabato.

Republicans cannot win as the party of white males. They are going to be on the endangered list unless they can figure out a way to win the Latino vote.
CanWest News Service 2007