The May 1 demonstrations, which capped a year of unprecedented self-assertiveness by America’s heretofore reticent Latino population, mark an important change in Hispanic attitudes and, therefore, in American politics.
The emerging group-identity consciousness among the Latino population is creating a political reality before our eyes that can only trigger memories of the emergence of African-American political awareness during the late ’50s and early ’60s.
Until the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave the black community a political voice, it was both inarticulate and unconscious of its political power. But in the crucible of the civil rights era and the legislation of 1964 and 1965 there developed a group voting identity that has structured the African-American vote for the next 40 years — and counting.
The quiescence of the Hispanic vote parallels the failure of blacks to speak out before the civil rights era, and its emergence this year evokes similarities to the civil rights era of the early 1960s. The result is likely to be the same — a massive consensus spread throughout the community, cutting across lines of ethnic origin, age, gender or religion on who is their friend and who is their enemy.
This ethnic group, by far the fastest growing in our nation, will likely tip one way or the other as a result of what happens in Washington this year and next. With the Hispanic vote expected to top 20 percent by 2020, the resulting collective decision of the Latino community could be the most important factor in the future of America’s political parties.
Some Republicans feel squeezed between the demands of their right-wing base and their desire to appeal to Hispanic voters. But they need not make a choice. They can have their cake and eat it too.Polls show that the GOP base wants, above all else, enforceable borders. That means a wall, possibly militarization of the border and an effective deportation policy. The survey research indicates that while Latino voters in the United States are not in favor or the wall they are not deeply opposed either. What they want is for the wall to have a gate that can swing open to admit guest workers and legal immigrants in larger numbers.
By contrast, the right-wingers want the wall more than they dislike programs for guest workers and the like. While the more dogmatic among them are turned off by “rewarding” those who came here illegally, they are likely to back any program that has a tough border policy, even if it allows for guest workers.
But the problem is that few politicians are advocating both a wall and guest workers. The likes of Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) back the wall but oppose what they call “amnesty,” and the likes of Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) want a guest-worker program with a path to citizenship but look askance at proposals for a wall or for militarization of the border.
The political impact of such a move would be sensational. It would do more to build a link between the GOP and the Latino vote than any other policy decision. It could lead to a realignment of the political loyalties of the Hispanic community.
The GOP base will happily watch the wall go up. It will breathe easier when we get control of our borders. The details of the guest-worker program — whether the illegals have to recross the border or not — will matter less to them than the obvious progress we will be making in building our wall to secure our borders.
The GOP needs to seize control over this potent issue, or it risks having the worst of both possible worlds. The right-wing base may be infuriated by the failure to pass legislation to control the border, and the Hispanics may be permanently alienated by a failure to meet the growing demands of their community for legal status.