Beyond the Borders: Citizenship Politics Expert Explains Election Issues Most Important to Latino Americans

By Tom McLaughlin

One of the fastest-growing ethnic populations in the United States, Latino Americans will continue to play a significant role in presidential politics in 2016 and beyond.


Lorrin Thomas

So what issues are most important to them and what can the candidates do to ensure that their messages are being heard in the Latino community?

To dig into these questions, we check in with Lorrin Thomas, an associate professor and chair of the Department of History at Rutgers University–Camden, who is an expert on citizenship politics, immigration, and migration.

What issues do you see as most important to Latinos?

Latinos are presumed to be single-issue voters, focusing only on questions of immigration, amnesty, and citizenship; but in fact, jobs and education tend to top the list of Latino voters’ concerns.

Will the Latino vote play a pivotal role in this election?

While the participation of Latino voters will be tremendously significant in this election, their actual impact in the general election is very hard to predict due to three major reasons. For starters, there is no monolithic Latino vote. Secondly, there is a broad variation in the political leanings of different Latino groups, depending on economic status, citizenship status, national origin, and region-specific concerns. Lastly, the rates of registration and turnout are typically low among eligible Latino voters, but vary according to these same criteria, most notably economic status and national origin.

Donald Trump has been very vocal in his call for increased border security to prevent illegal immigration, as well as his plan to deport undocumented immigrants currently living in the United States. How do you think that these statements are being received in the Latino community?

Some observers have speculated about the “Trump effect” – the notion that Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric will spur Latinos with green cards to become citizens and will motivate unregistered voters to register.

Do eligible Latino voters support stronger border security and the deportation of illegal immigrants?

The traditionally Republican base of Cuban-American voters in Florida tends to support stronger border security – a standard plank in the Republican platform. I’ve never seen reporting of Latino groups who say they support deportation of undocumented immigrants. Polls of Latino voters from both parties show very high – 80 to 90 percent – levels of support for a path to citizenship for undocumented Latino immigrants.

In your estimation, what messages from either candidate are resonating with Latino voters?

Beginning in May 2016, Hillary Clinton’s very strong support for a path to citizenship has resonated very strongly with Latino voters, who will expect her to follow through with immigration reform that prioritizes amnesty for the undocumented. I hardly need to comment on the impact of Trump’s immigration messages on Latino voters.

In your view, what can the candidates do to ensure that their messages are being heard in Latino communities?

Hillary Clinton needs to continue to speak directly to Latino communities in various areas of the country – the Southwest, Florida, California, the urban Mid-Atlantic, Chicago, and the growing Latino communities in the Southeast and Midwest – about her commitment to take seriously their concerns; not just about immigration reform, but also about the economic issues that affect the immigrant working class, such as minimum wage policies, health care, and college access.

As for Trump, given how clear he’s made his disdain for Latinos’ contribution to the nation, there is nothing he can do – or will do – to try to earn their support. The Latino vote is clearly not part of the calculus of his campaign, and I am positive that, in the general election, he will earn a historically low percentage of the Latino vote.

Thomas is the author of Puerto Rican Citizen: History and Political Identity in Twentieth-Century New York City (The University of Chicago Press).


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