Commentary: Here's how GOP candidates can reach Latino voters

The Kansas City StarMarch 11, 2012 

American politicians have a Latino problem. And it isn't the stereotypical immigrant patting tortillas, singing corridos or crossing the border.

Their problem is the Hispanic U.S. citizen — more likely than not to be assimilated, English-speaking and preoccupied with issues that have nothing to do with their ethnicity. Latinos make up a rapidly growing demographic group and voting bloc, yet Democrats and Republicans alike fail to grasp their concerns. Instead, candidates view them through the prism of immigration, especially illegal immigration.

As a result, Latino citizens often feel invisible.

A little math reveals why. According to Census Bureau projections, Latinos will be 30 percent of the U.S. population by 2050. As the largest ethnic minority group, they already number 50.5 million. That explains the nativist backlash.

However, only 21 million Latinos are eligible to vote, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. And even though their votes could be crucial to win in 12 of the 15 swing states, only 12 million are expected to vote in the upcoming presidential election, according to the bipartisan National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund.

Immigration is not a pressing concern for Latino citizens. According to a Pew poll, the top 2012 election issues among Latino registered voters were jobs, education, health care, taxes and the federal budget deficit. Immigration was last.

So here’s a helpful tip for politicians: Quit yammering about illegal immigrants.

Courting voters is a lot like dating. Successful politicians will play to how their constituents like to see themselves.

Sarah Palin played the proud mother, shielding her cubs with Grizzly Mama ferocity. Barack Obama appealed to voters who regarded themselves as enlightened and pragmatic and who wanted a leader with the same qualities.

If you’re a politician who wants to appeal to Hispanic voters (and you should), what should you be talking about?

The recession hit Hispanic families harder than it did other racial groups. What these families want to hear is how you are going to put America back to work and safeguard its economic stability. They want to hear what you will do to make their schools better so their children can raise the family’s economic prospects, as previous generations did. You might mention that a prosperous and well-educated Latino demographic is imperative for the nation’s future, considering its burgeoning size.

Why has this not sunk in with the political class? For Republican candidates, two explanations suggest themselves: Either they don’t know much about Latinos, or they deem it more profitable politically to demonize Latinos.

Democrats like to tout their more enlightened stand on immigration, but in doing so, they simply reinforce illegal immigration as a political issue.

The truth is, the backlash against new immigrants finds an echo within the community they hope to join: Latino-Americans already on the road to assimilation. Mexican-Americans aren’t the first ethnic group to look askance at more recent immigrants from the mother country. It has happened with every wave of immigrants, from the Irish and Germans to the Poles to the Vietnamese.

Some of the nastiest comments about illegal immigrants sometimes come from the mouths of Hispanics. They rarely do it on camera, but they do it. Yet their discontent isn’t hateful enough to buy into the crazy rhetoric of some anti-immigrant candidates. They know better. They just find it convenient or emotionally more palatable to forget their own family histories.

The GOP constantly lumps these assimilated Latinos with undocumented people. And they do so unaware that their harsh rhetoric riles conflicted sentiments within a voting bloc they ought to be courting.

Immigration is an important political issue. U.S. immigration policy has failed at many levels, and the next president, whoever he may be, must address it. But if candidates want to “capture” the Latino vote, they’d best shut up about illegal immigrants and start talking to the rest of us.

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