New Internationalist

How migrant demographics are reshaping US politics

January 2013

With 7 out of 10 Latinos voting to re-elect Barack Obama, Republicans are debating whether to alter their hardline immigration stance, says Mark Engler.

For white supremacists in the US, the apocalypse predicted in the Mayan calendar came true: in 2012, for the first time, more than half of all babies born here belong to ethnic minorities. If trends hold, white people (or ‘non-Hispanic whites’, to be more accurate) will themselves become a racial minority here around 2040.

For non-bigots, these changes are merely a reflection of one of the US’s great strengths: its status as a constantly self-renewing nation of immigrants. But whether one celebrates the reality of diversity or yearns for the ‘traditional America’ depicted in sitcom reruns from the 1950s (Theodore ‘The Beaver’ Cleaver*, present; histories of racism and segregation, conveniently missing), shifting demographics are already reshaping US politics.

Latino voters currently make up a small fraction of the electorate. Yet in critical swing states, they can be decisive. Latinos voting overwhelmingly to re-elect Barack Obama – roughly 7 out of 10 opted against rule by Romney – helped determine outcomes in battlegrounds such as Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Florida.

US conservatives, struggling to understand how anyone could possibly oppose their programme of using government primarily to control women’s uteruses, invade foreign countries, and provide gainful employment to lawyers who want to rewrite the tax code for the benefit of the one per cent, have come up with an explanation. They argue that President Obama bought off Latinos with ‘gifts’. Specifically, they point to a White House decision last summer to stop deportations of young immigrants who came to the US as children and are now attending college or serving in the military.

It’s true that, in effect, this executive action implemented key provisions of the Dream Act, a measure heavily favoured in Latino communities but previously blocked by Congressional Republicans. However, the notion that Obama’s move was merely a piece of patronage concocted to mop up votes is an offensive one.

First off, it shows the massive amount of condescension flowing from US conservatives toward Latinos. (Note to the Right: accusing an ethnic group of being a bunch of paid-off patsies is probably not the best way to woo them to your side.) Even more significantly, it reveals total ignorance of the dedicated and daring activism that pressured an often-reluctant White House to stand up for immigrant rights.

In recent years, promoters of the Dream Act – young advocates who call themselves dreamers – have organized relentlessly and made significant personal sacrifices to force change. Adopting the language of the gay liberation movement, dreamers have ‘come out’ at public events. They risked deportation and stigma by revealing their status as undocumented immigrants, insisting that they will no longer be anonymous or afraid.

‘We need to live without fear because the fear paralyses us,’ one activist, 24-year-old Jonathan Perez, said in 2011. ‘If we stay quiet, we stay in the shadows.’

Some have followed up on public statements with bold civil disobedience. After the Obama administration made initial signs that it would de-prioritize deporting immigrants who had come to the country as children, Perez, along with another dreamer, dramatically tested the White House’s resolve: they marched into an immigration office in deeply conservative Alabama, announced that they didn’t have visas, and dared the administration to enter a media showdown over its response.

As election season heated up, other dreamers occupied Obama campaign offices in Denver, Oakland, Los Angeles, Cincinnati and Detroit. Only then did the White House decide that taking a significant step on immigration reform was a better option than courting further embarrassment from activists.

Post-election, conservatives are scrambling to catch up. The Republican Party has been torn by internal debates about whether to alter its hardline immigration stance. Given the strength of nativist factions, it’s unclear that the Right can reform itself, even if it wants to.

But ultimately, who cares? A nation of immigrants has spoken. It is telling the future.

Mark Engler is a senior analyst with Foreign Policy In Focus. He can be reached via the website Democracy Uprising

*The fresh-faced seven-year-old protagonist of long-running TV series Leave it to Beaver.

Front cover of New Internationalist magazine, issue 459 This column was published in the January 2013 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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