Monday, November 03, 2008

New Voters

The Sacramento Bee had an interesting story yesterday about a pool of voters that candidates will have to start paying attention to: new citizens.

Swept up in election-year fever, a large wave of new citizens could go to the polls and prove immigrants' growing electoral clout.

In California, more than 298,000 new citizens were sworn in this year, up 39 percent from about 182,000 naturalizations last year.

That surge is adding to a growing Latino electorate in California, as have similar registration efforts in such swing states as Nevada, Colorado, New Mexico and Florida. ...

Latinos make up the majority of new citizens in California, as in many other states, and they tend to register as Democrats more often than as Republicans.

About 64 percent of California's likely Latino voters are Democrats, according to the nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California. The institute also estimated that, at last count, Latinos constitute about 15 percent of the state's electorate.

Immigrant clout may be even greater, however, when children of immigrants are counted, according to a report released last month by the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center.

By 2006, that study found, more than 24 percent of California's registered voters were "new Americans" – those who are naturalized citizens or children born after 1965 to at least one immigrant parent.

It's tempting to assume that the Democrats will be the only beneficiaries of this new segment of the population, but I think that would be a mistake. Latinos, like other racial and ethnic groups, tend to be diverse in their political affiliations, especially as time goes on. Further, first generation immigrants from Latin America tend to be socially conservative, as the Cuban voting patterns in Florida have demonstrated.

Still, at least at this point, the Democrats do have a decisive edge. Certainly the dramatic rise in the cost of filing for naturalization, announced a year in advance, played an important role in the huge surge of new citizens. Equally as important, however, was the vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric espoused by the GOP, most notably Tom Tancredo. That rhetoric was backed up by the current administration with employer raids and mass deportations, and the building of a literal wall at the Mexican border. Legal workers and their families were encouraged to become citizens in a push-back by community groups supported by Spanish-language radio and television stations, and hundreds of thousands did just that.

Ironically, one Republican, John McCain offered a less virulent plan on the immigration issue, a stance he quietly dropped once his campaign took off. That initial stance was recalled by at least some of the new citizens, as the article makes clear. Yet immigration never became a real issue in the over-all campaign, and McCain didn't reach out to the Latino community until the closing weeks of the campaign, too little and way too late to make any real inroads with Latinos.

That was this time around. Republicans will not make that mistake next time, and that next time is just a couple of years away.

My advice to Democrats is to take the initiative right from the start in the 111th Congress by trying to work out real immigration reform, one that doesn't embrace a bracero program to keep workers under the thumbs of employers, but one that does confront the problem of the millions of "illegals" already here who have worked and paid taxes and comes up with an uncomplicated path to either citizenship or at least legal status.

No voting group, even a diverse one, deserves to be "taken for granted."

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