Will Arizona Law Help Dems With Hispanics?

In the wake of Arizona’s strict new immigration law, which grants police broad powers to check people’s legal status, Hispanics nationwide are fired up. Thousands of protesters converged at the Arizona capitol in Phoenix to denounce the measure in April. Rallies on May 1 drew tens of thousands more into the streets of 70 cities across the country. Earlier this week, student activists staged a sit-in at Sen. John McCain’s Tucson office to condemn his support of the law. City leaders (not all of them Latino) from San Diego to St. Paul, Minn., declared boycotts against Arizona.

Does this mean Hispanics are poised to storm the ballot boxes this November? Not necessarily. In a poll taken prior to the passage of the Arizona law, a survey by Latino Decisions found Hispanic political engagement “at an all-time low,” according to Gary Segura, a member of the polling firm. Only 49 percent of Hispanic registered voters were very enthusiastic about voting in the coming November elections, compared with 89 percent in September 2006, during the last midterm cycle. (A February survey of four states by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, on the other hand, showed that between 74 and 80 percent of African-Americans said they were very likely to vote in November.)

Segura ascribed the decline among Latinos to an overall deflation of the hype surrounding President Barack Obama’s election and a specific disenchantment with the administration’s unfulfilled promise to take up immigration reform. (In an appearance with Mexican President Felipe Calderón on Wednesday, Obama reiterated his commitment to an immigration overhaul and called the Arizona measure “misdirected” and “troublesome.”) In the aftermath of the Arizona law, not much has changed. A new Latino Decisions survey, conducted earlier this month for the National Council of La Raza and the Service Employees International Union, shows that only 45 percent of Arizona Hispanics are very enthusiastic about voting in November (and if they’re not motivated, it’s doubtful Latinos outside the state are either).

The poll brought some good news for Democrats. Only 2 percent of Arizona Hispanics blamed them exclusively for the new law (which was passed by a GOP legislature and signed by a GOP governor), compared with 59 percent who solely blamed Republicans. But there was bad news for Democrats, too. Thirty-three percent blamed both parties, and 66 percent said Democrats didn’t do enough to block the bill. In addition, while 80 percent said they were less excited about the GOP, 49 percent said the same about Democrats. Among Latinos, “there’s anger and passion, but for many, there is no viable choice on the ballot for them to channel that,” says Rodolfo Espino, a professor at Arizona State University and member of Latino Decisions.

Many political analysts compare the current tumult over the Arizona law to the uproar over Proposition 187 in California, which passed with GOP backing in 1994 and sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving public services (it was later declared unconstitutional). In the four years after the measure’s passage, California Hispanics registered to vote in droves and chose the Democratic Party over the Republican Party by a ratio of 8–1, says Harry Pachon of the Tomás Rivera Policy Institute. That helped turn California, the largest state in the country, where Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon hailed from, into a reliable Democratic bulwark. Analysts also draw parallels between the Arizona law and the ”Sensenbrenner bill”—named for its Republican sponsor, U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner—that passed the House in 2005 and could have led to massive deportations of illegal immigrants (it never became law). That proposal triggered huge demonstrations in 2006 and helped Democrats win sizable Latino margins in the midterms later that year.

Whatever the result in November, the GOP has further blemished its brand among Hispanics. The Latino Decisions poll showed that Arizona Hispanics became more disenchanted with the party immediately after passage of the new law. Thirty-six percent said congressional Republicans were blocking immigration reform—a 3-point uptick from a month earlier—and only 21 percent said they were working for it—a 7-point decline. Hispanics “feel like they’re getting scapegoated and targeted,” says Espino. And once again, the GOP is behind the effort. In the short term, perhaps, Republicans gain more by taking a hard line: Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, after all, got a bump in her job rating after signing the controversial measure. But by repeatedly alienating the fastest growing segment of the electorate, Republicans continue to display a long-term death wish.

Many party elders, particularly old Bushies, are flustered. When the Arizona bill became law, Jeb Bush, Karl Rove, and former Florida Sen. Mel Martinez immediately came out against it. They and others have been urging the GOP to temper the inflammatory rhetoric about illegal immigration so as to recoup the party’s losses among Latinos (especially among first-generation voters, for whom the immigration issue is most dear). In the past year, a number of new groups—including the Latino Partnership for Conservative Principles, led by Alfonso Aguilar, a George W. Bush administration official, and Hispanic Republicans of Texas, cofounded by George P. Bush, Jeb’s son—have cropped up to help. Yet each new indignity leveled at Latinos undermines these efforts. “I think the relationship has been damaged,” says Aguilar. “We’ve allowed a small group of Republicans to make a lot of noise.”

Hispanic anger toward the GOP, however, doesn’t equate with fervor for Democrats. They need to earn it. Obama energized the community in 2008 through costly outreach, concerted grassroots organizing, and big promises about tackling the nation’s broken immigration system. He was rewarded with a large Latino turnout that helped him secure victories in Western swing states such as Colorado, where turnout increased 18 percent over 2004, and Nevada, where it jumped 65 percent. But since then, disappointment has been mounting, slowly but steadily. “Clearly, the Democrats have to do more than they have if they want an enthusiastic Latino vote in 2010,” says Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democrat Network. They need to fight for an immigration-reform bill, he says, and pump money into appealing to Hispanics over the airwaves and organizing them on the ground. The Arizona controversy may yet prove to be a boon to Democrats, but not if they don’t figure out how to capitalize on it.