Trump, GOP Positions on Immigration Pushing Latinos to Vote Democrat

Editors' pick: Originally published April 19.

This should be the year of the Latino voter. Issues critical to native-born and immigrant Latinos are coming to a head just as its electoral power appears close to fulfilling its political expectations. 

On Monday, the Supreme Court began to hear oral arguments in United State vs. Texas, a case brought by Republican governors to overturn President Obama's 2014 executive orders aimed at addressing the immigration status of four-to-five million people living in the U.S.

On Tuesday, New York holds its primary, a contest that could serve as a preview to a much larger Latino voter turnout in November which activists hope will energize public support for immigration reform and support for such measures as raising the federal minimum wage. Latinos are the country's fastest growing ethnic voting group.

"Latino voter turnout has been up through these primaries, but it will really hit full bloom in the general election," said Antonio Gonzalez, president of the San Antonio-based Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, in a phone interview from New York. "The election is going to be best ever."

Latinos are expected to comprise more than 10% of the electorate in November; in 2012, they accounted for 8.5% of the general election vote. The rising numbers are due in part to a voter registration rush spurred by inflammatory comments from Donald Trump and others Republicans about immigrants. Trump's labeling of Mexicans as "thieves" and "rapists" has alarmed Latinos, both citizens and undocumented immigrants, jump-starting voter registration efforts in key battleground states such as Nevada, Colorado and Florida.

And, as expected, such pronouncements have served to further aid Democrats, according to a study published Monday by Latino Decisions, a Seattle-based polling and political consultancy. Among Latinos, 74% to 14% said they were "less likely," rather than "more likely" to vote for a Republican candidate because of its opposition to DACA and DAPA. The results were similarly reversed for Democrats.

In Arizona, which has historically gone Republican in the general election, the tactics of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, have served as a lightening rod for Latino voter registration, which could reach one million this year; in 2004, there were 250,000 Latinos registered to vote in Arizona. Arpaio recently endorsed Trump.

The prospect of Trump winning the Republican candidacy stands to make immigrants and their place in the U.S. economy even more a part of the campaign that it has already.

"You only get high participation when there's great polarization," Gonzalez added. "Go Trump Go -- a good villain is a terrible thing to waste."

Taking Latino Votes for Granted

Though New York's 29 electoral votes will almost certainly go to the Democratic presidential candidate, getting Latinos to the polls is viewed as integral to demonstrating that immigration reform ought to be at the top of the political agenda when a new administration takes over in January 2017.

"We have to create the space for these folks to do the right thing," said Javier Valdes, co-director of Make The Road New York, a statewide immigrant rights organization based in Brooklyn. "We just can't expect them to do it."

What advocates don't want is a repeat of 2008 when incoming president Barack Obama put healthcare reform in front of immigration, arguably satisfying a wider populace though disappointing an emerging voter bloc. Other issues -- criminal justice reform, Wall Street oversight, a tax code overhaul -- threaten to overshadow immigration reform.

This time around, both Democratic candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, have embraced comprehensive immigration reform to address the jumble of classifications given to the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. They've also backed Obama's executive orders known as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals Program, or DACA, and the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents, or DAPA, aimed at providing temporary relief from deportation for those who qualify.

Conversely, the Republican frontrunners Trump and Ted Cruz oppose most aspects of the 2013 immigration bill that passed the Senate. Trump has won supporters and detractors with his call to build a wall along parts of the U.S.-Mexico border while Cruz has said he too would block any efforts to "reward millions of illegal immigrants with amnesty."

Despite the stark contrast between the parties, Latino activists would like to see Sanders and Clinton speak more forcefully on immigration reform.

"They both need to explicitly reject Trump on the wall and make an issue out of it -- polarization is their friend," said Gonzalez. "They need to emphatically say that it's time to take the punitive out of this. Immigrants have suffered enough."

When it comes to issues relevant to immigrants, both Clinton and Sanders have less than perfect records.

As a New York senator in 2007, Clinton turned on immigrant rights advocates when she chose to oppose an effort to convince the New York state legislature to allow undocumented immigrants to become eligible for a drivers license. Having a driver's license was widely seen by activists as integral to working in an economy that continues to eagerly hire non-citizen laborers.

That same year, Sanders voted against a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill, arguing that it threatened to depress the wages of native-born workers. Sanders' comments at the time angered immigrant activists who contended that his arguments about depressing wages was inaccurate, and that the bill, backed by a Republican president, would have prevented millions of people from being deported.

"Both of them in 2007 did things that were very troublesome to our constituency," Valdes added. "I'm glad both of them have evolved since then."

Nonetheless, immigrant rights activists remain wary that other pressing national issues will emerge as higher priorities in the event that a Democrat does win election in November. Latinos, they fear, will be seen as beholden to a Democrat considering that Republicans have yet to emerge as offering an attractive alternative.

"Latinos are on the verge of becoming a captured vote, much like African-Americans," says Francisco Heredia, national field director for Mi Familia Vota, or My Family Votes, a voter registration group. "I fear the Democrats are already taking the vote for granted."

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