Politicians Should Stop Assuming Immigration Is the Only “Latino Issue”

We’ve heard countless experts argue that Latinos “will decide the 2020 election,” but can either Donald Trump or Joe Biden win big with Latinx voters?

There are 32 million Latinos eligible to vote in the November elections — the second-largest ethno-racial voting bloc in the country. The “sleeping giant” is awake, but it’s not what political strategists thought it would be. In the 2016 presidential election, 28 percent of Latinx voters supported Trump despite his campaign full of racist and anti-immigration rhetoric. A recent poll by NALEO Education Fund finds that one in four Latinx voters plan to vote for Trump this year. Even after calling Mexicans “rapists” and separating and misplacing 545 migrant children from their parents, the president still garners support from some Latinx voters, showing how complex and misleading the concept of the “Latino vote” truly is.

The idea of a “Latino voter” promotes the myth of a homogenous culture among Latinos, when in reality, it’s far from it. Because of this, politicians should stop describing a singular “Latino community,” furthering a narrative that politically and culturally accepts Latinos as a unified front to one that encompasses the complexities within the label. Instead, Latinx culture should be recognized as heterogeneous — multicultural and racially diverse, with a wide variety of political interests.

Latinx support for Republican candidates is not new. There’s a long history of Latinx political allegiance to the Republican Party, but it’s assumed that Latinos vote for the Democratic Party because of the anti-immigrant sentiment that’s often promoted by the right. Recent presidential elections tell a different story. The 2004 presidential election saw 40 percent of Latinx voters support the reelection of George W. Bush. In 2008, 31 percent of Latinx voters supported John McCain over Barack Obama. Latinx voters have historically supported both parties, thus candidates spend millions of dollars and strategize tirelessly to win their support.

Courting the “Latino vote” is complicated, but many campaigns simplify it by mentioning their intents to address the decades-long issues surrounding immigration. Without a doubt, it’s about time a president delivers comprehensive solutions to immigration issues — where support for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients becomes support for comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship for 11 million undocumented immigrants. However, not all Latinos have a connection to the immigrant experience.

A majority of Latinos in the United States are U.S. citizens, despite Latinos being represented as the sole face of immigration debates. Politicians should recognize that Latinos are not one-issue voters and they have an important stake in the economy, education and health care, as well.

Latinos experience significant income inequality in the United States. In 2017, the median income of Latinx households was $50,486, compared to non-Latinx white households earning a median income of $68,145. However, certain Latinos earn more than others. Latinos of South American origin have a higher median household income than Latinos from Central America and the Caribbean. For example, there’s a $27,000 difference between the median household income of Argentines and Hondurans living in the U.S. Furthermore, while a record number of Latinos are attending college, student debt continues to be largely insurmountable and Latinos continue to be formally educated at lower rates than non-Latinos.

When it comes to health care and the economy, Latinx voices are more important than ever. The age-adjusted mortality rate among COVID-19 patients is higher among Latinos than other groups. In economic terms, the growth of Latinx-owned small businesses is significantly outpacing that of the overall U.S. average. However, that growth has been severely impacted, as a recent survey shows that 65 percent of Latinx small business owners say they will not be able to operate their business past six months, if current conditions don’t significantly shift.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately affected Latinx communities and this must be of top priority for presidential candidates and politicians in Congress. Unfortunately, there’s limited Latinx representation in Congress.

Latinos are 18 percent of the United States population, but their congressional representation is severely lacking. While a record number of Latinos are running for office, Congress would need an additional 14 senators and 40 representatives who identify as Latino/a/x to align with current demographics. This is even more significant considering the U.S. Census projects that 27 percent of the country’s population will be Latinx by 2060.

The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 — which ceded parts of the modern-day Southwest to the United States from Mexico after the Mexican-American War — and decades of Latin American migration have created diverse generations of Latinos with different relationships to their Latin American roots. In the United States, there are some Latinos who escaped oppressive dictatorships; some sought to leave countries with widespread poverty and gang violence; some who have never left the United States and don’t speak any language besides English; some who benefit from white privilege; and some who are Black and experience intensified racial injustice. What unifies such diverse groups of people?

The 1960s were a decade of significant civil rights struggle and progress in the United States. Alongside the Black civil rights movement, many Mexicans, Cubans and Puerto Ricans sought political representation and the advancement of their respective causes. The U.S. government, alongside media organizations and activist groups, looked to organize these communities with Latin American and Spanish-speaking roots. By the 1980s, there was a designated checkbox for “Hispanic or Latino” self-identification in the decennial census, a celebratory month — National Hispanic Heritage Month — to commemorate the contributions of Latinos in the United States, an array of established advocacy groups promoting the advancement of Latinos, and the first Spanish-language television network, Univision. The creation of a pan-ethnic “Hispanic or Latino” identity also extended to politics, promoting the idea of a “Latino vote.”

Presidential candidates must know there’s not a “one shoe fits all” approach to Latinx voters. Earning the support of Latinx voters is not only about appearing on Univision for a lengthy interview (which, to date, neither 2020 candidate has done), murmuring a phrase in Spanish while debating opponents in Miami, referring to yourself as “Elena” in front of Latinx culinary workers or pandering to Cuban voters while deporting undocumented Mexican immigrants during National Hispanic Heritage Month. It’s about recognizing that the approach used to garner support from upper-middle-class Venezuelan Americans in Florida is not the same as the tactics used toward Salvadoran voters in California. It’s about addressing and delivering on the issues all Latinx communities face without being reductive.

Without a doubt, the year 2020 has been full of surprises. Who knows if this is the year “Latinos decide the election results”? — as many optimistic writers predict every four years. One thing is clear, though: Town halls and debates are essential to the democratic process, but when diverse Latinx voices and perspectives are missing, it does a disservice to the millions of unique Latinx voters who feel alienated from the system.