Immigration advocates: Solid Latino turnout shows need for reform now

Unions and pro-immigration reform groups are touting the impact of the Latino vote on the midterm elections as they renew their push for comprehensive legislation in the next Congress.

Advocates for an immigration reform bill say Democratic candidates in Western states, particularly California and Nevada, benefited from high Latino turnout. They plan to pivot off that strong showing in 2010 to argue that both parties need to move on immigration reform if they want to win over the crucial voting bloc in 2012.

ADVERTISEMENT
“It showed the Democrats that they needed the Latinos to win. It also showed the Republicans that they cannot win without Latinos,” Eliseo Medina, secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), told The Hill.

Immigration reform advocates say Democrats who fought for a comprehensive bill this Congress were rewarded by Latino voters. On the other hand, they say Republicans who called for tougher border enforcement policies and increased deportation were punished. 

“In wave elections, both chambers usually flip. It’s pretty remarkable that the Senate stayed in Democratic hands,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, an immigration reform advocacy group. “The Latino vote was the firewall.” 

According to exit polls, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) earned 68 percent of the Latino vote in the Nevada Senate race, compared with 30 percent for his Republican challenger, Sharron Angle. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) took 65 percent of the Latino vote in the California Senate race, while Carly Fiorina, her GOP opponent, took 28 percent.

In both the Nevada and California races, Latino voters made up 15 to 20 percent of the electorate. 

Both Angle and Fiorina came out against comprehensive immigration reform during their election campaigns. Both GOP candidates also supported a new Arizona state law that gave police officers the authority to detain someone on suspicion alone of being in the United States illegally.  

Reid, in particular, made a big play for Latino votes. In September, the Senate leader tried unsuccessfully to attach an immigration-related measure known as the DREAM Act to the defense authorization bill. The provision would provide a path to U.S. citizenship for children of illegal immigrants if they earn a two-year college degree or join the military.

“Latino citizens responded to Majority Leader Harry Reid's aggressive pursuit of immigration reform by voting for him in overwhelming numbers. They were clearly the difference in his victory,” Rep. Luis Guiterrez (D-Ill.), a vocal immigration reform advocate, said in a statement Wednesday.

The tilt of Latinos toward Democrats can be seen in a poll taken in eight states from Oct. 28 to Nov. 1. 

Paid for by groups in favor of immigration reform, including SEIU and the National Council of La Raza, the poll found Latino voters supported Reid by 90 percent, Boxer by 86 percent, and Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) by 81 percent, among other candidates. All three won close races on Election Day.

In addition, immigration reform was the second most important issue for Latino voters, according to the poll. Forty-eight percent chose either “jobs” or “the economy” as their biggest concern, while 37 percent chose “immigration.”

SEIU, in particular, has worked to harness the Latino vote. The union pumped $5 million into Cambiando California, a Latino outreach group that helped turn out voters for California Gov.-elect Jerry Brown (D). 

The Latino vote will be crucial for either party in 2012 as they compete for control of the White House. Moving on comprehensive immigration reform could be key to securing those votes.   

“Immigration reform has become a litmus-test issue for these voters. You are going to have to get on the right side of this issue if you want to win a national race. Being against immigration reform is turning into political poison,” said Martine Apodaca, communications director for Reform Immigration For America.

The new Republican House majority could be put in a difficult position on the issue — Senate Democrats still have control of their chamber and could move on an immigration package in the next Congress.

If the legislation passes, likely House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) will have to decide whether or not to take up the bill. Either decision will anger an important faction: freshman GOP House members affiliated with the Tea Party or Latino voters his party’s presidential candidate will need in order to win the White House from President Obama. 

“The problem is they are caught between their political rhetoric and the future of their party,” Medina said about the GOP-controlled House.

The labor official, however, said Republicans now have an opportunity to win Latino votes. If they negotiate in good faith to find a solution to the immigration problem, Latinos could be swayed in their direction. 

“If they engage in a real, honest-to-goodness discussion on how to fix this problem, people will give them credit for it,” Medina said. “They will get a fair hearing. They will also get a lot more votes if they change the direction of the party.”

Nevertheless, immigration reform advocates understand how tough it will be to pass a comprehensive bill in the divided Congress next year. But they expect Democrats will at least want to debate the issue in order to keep Latino voters on their side.

“We might not be able to win that debate, but we certainly want to have it. The Senate can make sure we do and so can the president,” Sharry said.