Politics & Policy

Latino Voters May Defy the GOP’s Conventional Wisdom

President Trump tours prototypes for a new U.S.-Mexico border wall near San Diego, Calif., on March 13, 2018. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)
Historically, there has never been any consensus among Latinos on the issue of illegal immigration.

For Latino voters across the country, the issue of lax border policy versus Trump’s hawkish stance on illegal immigration isn’t settled. Rather, it is possible that the rise of the Latino Republican will defy the conventional wisdom of many GOP strategists and pundits: that restrictionist border policy, or anything deviating from the status quo before Trump — what amounts to de facto open borders — could alienate Latino voters. It is possible that Latinos in border states such as California and Texas are getting behind Trump because of his hardline stance on this issue, which is directly related to GOP’s messaging on law and order.

Historically, there has never been any consensus among Latinos on the issue of illegal immigration. In fact, for many Latinos, especially workers in the agricultural industry, hardline stances were quite common. Caesar Chavez is one of the most admired populist figures in American history, and he had no tolerance for illegal immigration. The leader of the United Farm Workers union, Chavez described illegal immigrants as “wetbacks” who threatened unionized workers. “As long as we have a poor country bordering California,” he said in 1972, “it’s going to be very difficult to win strikes.” Chavez believed that illegal immigrants would drive down wages and weaken union negotiating power. How did Chavez respond when U.S. government failed to secure the border in the late ’70s? Armed with bats, chains, and barbed wire, Chavez and his fellow union members (all of whom were Latino) set up tents along the border of California and Mexico and proceeded to attack Mexican nationals who tried to make a run for it. The line was a hundred miles long. The effort was a success, according to Chavez. He didn’t hesitate in declaring it so.

In 1994, 30 percent of California Latinos voted in favor of Proposition 187, also known as the “Save Our State” Initiative. Prop 187 was ultimately ruled unconstitutional. Its provisions would have banned illegal immigrants from California’s public-school system and required providers of non-emergency health care to verify the legal status of a person seeking assistance. There was backlash against the proposition, especially among Latinos. Over 70,000 Latino immigrants protested in Los Angeles. But that 30 percent was not at all insignificant. Several academic studies, which investigated why Latinos would vote for the proposition, were published years later.

Even today, there is still no consensus among Latinos. In 2018, for example, 58.5 percent of Latino voters said they supported Trump’s immigration policies even though they disliked the president. Over 50 percent of respondents want stronger immigration laws, while only 18.3 percent said that current immigration law was too strict. Furthermore, in a recent Washington Post survey, 69 percent of Latinos favored shutting down almost all immigration amid the coronavirus pandemic. There is also the issue of law and order, which is high among Latinos’ concerns in the aftermath of this summer’s riots. In an early-June poll conducted by ABC News/Ipsos, 54 percent of Latino Democrats supported sending in the military to restore order in cities, and 60 percent of all Latino voters were amenable to military presence. What do these figures have to do with Trump’s immigration policies? Upholding law and order in cities is not entirely different from upholding law and order on the border, and Latinos who support law-enforcement agencies and the military intervening in cities might prefer that the border be secured and that immigrants enter the country legally. As stated earlier, historically, this was the case in California.

The idea that all immigrants, Latinos, and blacks are guaranteed to vote for Democrats in the long term is a delusion, as is the idea that all Latino voters are driven away from the GOP because of Trump’s immigration policy and his “xenophobic” rhetoric. Now more than ever, citizens are privy to the media’s hysteria about white supremacy, and Trump’s past comments about illegal immigrants seem completely irrelevant during a pandemic, recession, and season of rioting. If Republicans want to be the party of law and order that broadly appeals to all demographics, then perhaps they shouldn’t be equivocal on the issue of illegal immigration.

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