By Dr. Gabriela D. Lemus
The year 2006 presented a series of challenges and opportunities for the Hispanic community. Millions of people marched in the streets on behalf of immigrants in what seemed to be an almost spontaneous, yet peaceful uprising for workers. Meanwhile, Congress appeared to have fallen into a state of schizophreniaespecially members of the Housewith its summertime series of hearings that essentially attacked immigrants and questioned the validity of Hispanic citizens.
Cities like Hazelton, Pa., passed ordinances that racially-profiled Latinos and demanded that English be the only language spoken. Minutemen became the vanguard of vigilantism against immigrants, but also harassed Hispanic voters in places like Tucson, Ariz. Congressional campaigns ran attack ads designed to motivate the anti-immigrant base. All of these efforts backfired. Instead of a massive uprising against immigrants at the polls, we witnessed a tide of Hispanic voters casting their ballots. In effect, exit polls demonstrated that 6.5 million Latinos voted in this year’s mid-terms. Why is that significant? Because in comparison with the previous mid-term election in 2002 when Latino voters represented 5.3 percent of all voters, the number of Hispanic voters in 2006 increased by 37 percent to a total of 8 percent of all voters!
What does this tell us? Did Latinos turn against the Bush administration and the Republican Party? Were Latinos more fed up with the war in Iraq than other groups? Health care? Education? Job security? Or did the immigration marches and the anti-immigrant rhetoric play a role in shaping the mind of the Hispanic voter? After all, the national voter turnout actually decreased by 8.5 percentit would be logical then that Latino voting numbers also decrease. It became clear that Latino voters were trying to send an important message that the community counts and that it will hold Congress and the White House accountable. Democrats won 69 percent of the Latino vote.
In 2004, pundits and analysts were touting the Bush Administration’s and House Republicans’ success in increasing to 44 percent the number of Hispanic voters who voted for them. Latino voters were considered aligned with the Republican Party because of their allegedly similar views on religion, family, and entrepreneurship. But what the pundits ignored is that Latinos also are workers and critical thinkers who believe in social justice. When polled in this election cycle, Latinos were concerned about the war in Iraq, education, health care and job security, but the anti-immigrant factor and perceived anti-Hispanic agenda helped the Democrats win. In effect, Latino voters demonstrated how serious they are about the statement they had made earlier in the year: “Today we march, tomorrow we vote.”
There is a lesson here. The Latino community is not a monolith and does not wish to be taken for granted. Latino working families are concerned about the same issues everyone else worries about, and they are very serious about ensuring their voices are heard. What is important is that we keep the momentum goingif the December 12 run-off race between Ciro Rodriguez and Henry Bonilla for the Texas 23rd congressional district indicated anything, it is that when given the opportunity, attention, and appropriate information, Latinos will go to the polls and vote their minds. Their concerns are everyone’s concerns and when the community is attacked, it will fight back.
2008 is right around the corner. If the current numbers hold, the Latino vote will increase. We must bear in mind that every month, approximately 50,000 young Latinos turn 18 and that there are many hard-working immigrants who are becoming citizens who will have an opportunity to vote for the first time.
It is critical that we continue to link politics to organizing and look to the Hispanic community as an opportunity. As we build capacity for the unions in the years ahead, this young vibrant community has a very important role to play in the growth of the labor movement and in the political system of this country. The policies that the 110th Congress establishes in the coming years must include thoughtful immigration reform that addresses workers’ rights including the right to organize, labor protections against exploitation, a legalization mechanism for those undocumented workers already here and a sensible view to the future flows of workers.
Gabriela D. Lemus is Executive Director of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA).