U.S. Presidential Election

Chasing the Latino Vote

Latinos march on Washington to draw attention to demand more rights.
Gerado Montiel (L) and Angel Morales (R), both immigrants from Mexico, march on Washington to attract attention to issues of importance to Latino Americans (Photo: Tim Sloan/AFP-Getty Images).

In the brief conversation between [Mexico’s] President Vicente Fox and U.S. President George W. Bush in Bangkok, the issue of immigration finally came up again, and Bush showed a certain willingness to discuss solutions, even though he did not commit himself to anything definite. The atmosphere of the U.S. presidential election campaign presents the Mexican government with a golden opportunity to highlight the importance of this issue for President Bush’s agenda.

Bush, if he wants to get re-elected, needs to mobilize the support of Latino voters. And although the regularization of the status of immigrants is not an issue that concerns many of these voters, it is an indicator of the party’s attitude to a minority that currently numbers almost 30 million people.

The promise of an immigration agreement between Mexico and the United States in the campaign platform of the Republicans—and also the Democrats—may attract voters and, in a certain way, it would be a major diplomatic success for the Fox administration.

The inclusion of this issue in the campaigns is a controversial subject in and of itself, because opinion in the United States is very much divided over it. For the very same reason, candidates who in the past wished to position themselves in the center of the political spectrum tended to dodge any discussion of amnesty [for illegal immigrants], open borders, or the deportation of undocumented immigrants. Despite this, the political climate is showing signs of a growing polarization: The Republicans are increasingly adopting conservative positions on a wide variety of issues, while some Democrats have opted for bolder and more liberal stands.

The best example of this is Howard Dean, the former governor of  Vermont, who is running for the Democratic presidential nomination. His criticisms of the Bush administration are based on Dean’s rejection of the war in Iraq, which he voiced even before the invasion began.

This phenomenon of political polarization is one of the consequences of the rise to power by the most conservative wing of the Republic Party, as embodied by Bush, and the rightward drift of his administration. This phenomenon suggests that extreme positions are likely to be heard over the coming months.

In the event that Bush is re-elected, any predictions about the future of undocumented immigrants would have to be made on the pessimistic side. Despite this, the issue poses a dilemma that has no easy solution. Bush has striven to move closer to the Latino community, but most Republican voters tend to be hostile to a generous agreement on immigration, which would include, for example, a broad amnesty. At the same time, Bush needs the Latino vote, which Democrats like the governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, whose mother is Mexican, are competing for with intelligence and skill, aware that the Latino electorate may be decisive in the next election.

The attitudes of rejection toward undocumented Latino immigrants seem more and more untenable. In the first place, U.S. society is increasingly bicultural. Over the last 10 years, the Spanish-speaking population has increased by 62 percent. In California, 40 percent of residents speak Spanish in their homes, in New York 37 percent, and in Texas 31 percent.

Also, there are many undocumented immigrants who for years have lived in the United States illegally. In their own way, they have been integrated into U.S. society. To expel them would be tantamount to tearing them apart from their families or, more generally, from a fabric of social relationships equivalent to what they would have naturally developed where they were born.

This problem has surfaced in the most unexpected place and in the most unexpected way: among the U.S. troops in Iraq. Of almost 150,000 U.S. soldiers engaged in Iraq, more than 36,000 are Latinos. In recent days, the press reported the case of a soldier who enlisted with a false green card, and it is likely that many others are in the same situation. According to the law, upon his return to the United States, this undocumented immigrant will face deportation. If he risked his life for the country, however, if he fought with loyalty to defend the values that inspire Bush’s war on terrorism, if he behaved like a patriot, can he not hope to be treated as a U.S. citizen?

And just like him are his parents, who have lived and worked in the United States for more than 15 years and whose two children were born there. In other words, are they not U.S. citizens?

The presidential campaign now under way is an opportunity for this family to finally regularize its immigration status, because their circumstances bring together two elements that are important to Bush: patriotism and the war on terrorism—and, one might add, his attitude toward Latinos.

For the Mexican government, the U.S. presidential election is an opportunity as well. The question is how to take advantage of it.