Democrats court Hispanic voters, but frustrations remain
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - As Tennessee’s Hispanic population continues to grow along with the nation’s, the Democratic Party is appealing to Hispanic voters, saying it can best serve their needs in education, health care and easing the path to citizenship.
But advocates for the Hispanic community and other experts say President Barack Obama, despite some powerful initiatives, doesn’t necessarily have the Hispanic vote nailed down yet.
Hispanics have suffered as much as any demographic group from the economic recession. The president has overseen more deportations than his Republican predecessor, George W. Bush. And immigration reform remains politically elusive.
“Neither party should take the Hispanic vote for granted,” said Renata Soto, executive director of Conexion Americas, which helps Latino families in Middle Tennessee. “We are certainly disappointed that the immigration issue has not been addressed head-on by either party. That’s sort of a historic opportunity that both parties have right now.”
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, regarded by many as a rising star in the Democratic Party, will give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention tonight, a platform to reach millions of voters — but targeted toward Hispanics in particular.
Castro, 37, said in an interview with The Tennessean on Sunday that he’ll talk about his family’s “story of intergenerational success and progress toward reaching the American dream.” He’ll also share his belief that Obama is investing in opportunities for immigrants through Pell grant funding and health care reform and by allowing illegal immigrants who came to America as children to stay here and work without fear of deportation.
“It’s very clear why President Obama is running so far ahead right now with Hispanics,” Castro said. “The reason is the policies that he’s embraced. President Obama has been the most effective advocate that the Hispanic community has ever had in the White House.”
Tennessee’s Hispanic population doubled as a percentage of the whole between 2000 and 2010, jumping to almost 5 percent. Nashville’s did the same, approaching 10 percent, compared to 16 percent for the nation.
Hispanic residents are driving much of the nation’s growth, said Steve Murdock, a professor of sociology at Rice University in Houston and former director of the U.S. Census Bureau.
The number of Hispanic children increased in all 50 states between 2000 and 2010, Murdock said. Meanwhile, 46 states, including Tennessee, saw declines in their numbers of non-Hispanic white children.
By 2042, non-Hispanic whites will make up less than half of the entire country.
“In a real sense, there are two populations now,” Murdock said. “One is an aging-literally-off-the-end-of-the-life-chart set of non-Hispanic whites. The average non-Hispanic white woman in the United States is 41. So if they’re going to have a bunch more babies, better get at it.
“The other population you have is increasingly minority. It is clear that when you look very far in the future — and this is a demographic pronouncement, it isn’t a political pronouncement — the future of the United States is tied to its minority population.”
Meghan Conley, a University of Tennessee doctoral student in sociology who specializes in Latino immigration, said she doesn’t see Tennessee’s Hispanic growth slowing anytime soon, either.
“We’re one of these new destination states for Latinos, and the majority of Latinos in Tennessee are U.S.-born,” Conley said.
“I definitely think it will continue. The South in general has experienced a tremendous increase in Latinos, both native-born and foreign-born. I would predict it will continue to grow for reasons related to the economy, the types of jobs available and things like that.”
Ivan Cerda, a Tennessee delegate to the Democratic convention from Antioch, said Hispanic voters like him are concerned about the economy, immigration reform and simply being treated fairly. Police still pull over too many Latino drivers for “driving while Hispanic,” he said.
“We’ve come a long way, but there’s still issues we have to resolve as a people,” Cerda said.
Vilma Cueva, a convention delegate from Spring Hill, said education is a big concern for many voters. They also want to see cities stop using programs like 287(g), which Nashville recently announced it will drop after five years of interrogating and initiating charges against suspected illegal immigrants who are arrested.
“There is a lot of hurt, there is a lot of fear in the community,” said Cueva, 53. “It’s a very awful feeling to live in fear.”
Cerda said Democrats have kept borders safe and given undocumented students a chance to continue their education. Now, he said, the party will have to be more visible and try to encourage legal U.S. residents who are Hispanic to become citizens and vote.
“If we talk about those things the Democratic Party has advocated for a long time, that could draw a lot of Latinos,” said Cerda, 21, a junior at Middle Tennessee State University. “It already has. So we just need to do a better job of spreading what the Democratic Party has done for the Latino community.”
Republicans have blamed Obama for failing to make the U.S.-Mexico border safer. They also say the economy he has presided over has hurt Hispanics disproportionately.
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, discussing the recession without mentioning the impact on Hispanics in particular, said in his address to the Republican National Convention last week that “for so many of you, these last few years have tested your faith in the promise of America.”
“Yes, we live in a troubled time,” Rubio said in an implict appeal to immigrants. “But the story of those who came before us reminds us that America has always been about new beginnings.”
Democrats are struggling in Tennessee, where Republicans dominate the state legislature and control the governor’s office, both U.S. Senate seats and seven of nine congressional districts. But Castro, the San Antonio mayor, said they have an opportunity if they show empathy for Hispanic voters.
“The Democratic Party needs to do what political parties have always done to reach out to folks: go knock on those doors. Understand the community. Speak to the issues that matter. It’s not just immigration. It’s education, it’s health care, it’s job creation.”
Soto agreed. She said Hispanic voters often identify with Democrats because initiatives like health care reform, with its guarantees of insurance, have spoken to their needs. But the party hasn’t closed the deal yet.
“It takes more than Spanish advertising and speaking our language — literally,” Soto said. “It’s about speaking to our problems genuinely.
“I hear more questions than allegiances right now. I don’t think you can categorically say that Latinos are for sure in the pocket of the Democratic Party.”