The Latino Enigma Baffles U.S. Pols

In this week's AGORA, Constantinos E. Scaros says politicians are wrong to think Latinos favor immigration amnesty. Dan Georgakas says it's the American way.

In this week’s AGORA, Constantinos E. Scaros maintains that politicians are wrong to think Latinos are in favor of immigration amnesty. Dan Georgakas looks at it from a different perspective – that even illegal immigration is all part of a process that,  in the end, will work out ok – as it did with Greek-Americans. What’s your opinion? 

SCAROS PRESENTS HIS POINT OF VIEW

Dan, whenever I listen to Democrats and Republicans try to explain “the Latino vote,” I think back to a few years ago when a gracious host – who invited me to a Christmas party at his home – had a bottle of Ouzo waiting for me at cocktail hour, thinking I would be very pleased, because after all, I’m Greek. And I am an Ouzo drinker, no doubt – though I prefer to sip mine outdoors on summer afternoons in Greece, preferably at a taverna just inches from the sea. Not on a cold winter night in New York in the middle of December. So as not to offend him, I helped myself to a glass (or two), secretly wishing it had been Scotch or Cognac.

Democratic and Republican leaders, of course, are not nearly as altruistic as my host was. They are not trying to please Latinos – but they recognize their rapidly-growing numbers, and want their votes. And though Democrats continue to scratch their heads about all the “Viva Reagan” signs at Latino rallies throughout the United States during the 1980 and especially 1984 presidential campaigns, it is Republicans who are most clueless about this emerging demographic. The GOP, in its infinite lack of wisdom, is desperately trying to reinvent itself by compromising on “immigration reform” so as to gain new Latino votes and not lose existing ones.

Having spent over 80% of my life thus far living among large Puerto Rican, Dominican, Mexican, Costa Rican, and Guatemalan populations, I think I understand Latinos fairly well. They are not a monolith. And they certainly do not, as a voting bloc, favor amnesty.
Essentially, what politicians accomplish by promoting amnesty for illegal aliens is to insult Latinos. It is as if they are saying to them: “you don’t care about following the rules. You just want your cousin Pedro or your best friend, Diego, who crossed the border in the back of a pickup truck, to be able to stay here.” Can you imagine, Dan, if Greek-Americans were the political “flavor of the month” instead of Latinos? Why the two major parties might want to grant amnesty to all Americans who hide their swimming pools from the IRS by camouflaging them with a cover to prevent aerial monitoring from above – because some Greeks in Greece have done that. “You Greeks don’t really care about the law,” they might say to us: “as long as your cousin Stavros in Las Vegas, or brother Petros in Phoenix can keep his pool without a hassle about paying taxes.”

Imagine further that in Greeks back in 1973, when Spiro Agnew resigned the vice presidency, pleading no contest to bribery charges from his days as Governor of Maryland but which allegedly continued into his days as President Nixon’s number two, were a fast-growing voting faction. And imagine that neither political party wanted to prosecute Agnew or to force his resignation “because that might cost us the Greek vote.” If that’s what they thought, then they might as well have been saying: “Georgakas and Scaros don’t really care about the law, they just care about Greeks.”

The vast majority of Latinos in the United States are either citizens or legal aliens. And they are just as outraged by illegal immigration as they would have been if their American lineage traced back to the Mayflower. More so, in fact, because many of them, and their loved ones, gained their American citizenship or legal permanent residence the hard way: they earned it. And they are least likely to turn a blind eye to those trying to cut the line, just because they might share the same ancestral background.

As immigration reform remains an issue at or near the top of my list in terms of my passion and interest, it is no surprise that I have written about it extensively and will continue to do so – in fact, I look forward to more Agora debates on the topic with you.
My contribution to this Agora installment, though is not to debate the merits of immigration reform, but to ridicule and lambaste both major parties for their pitiful lack of understanding of Latino-Americans. What do you think?

GEORGAKAS RESPONDS

When you raise the issue of amnesty for illegals are we speaking of forgiving illegal entry without major penalties or of creating work permits (with or without the possibility of citizenship?). Would there be stiff fines? How would the status of children brought in illegally or American-born children of illegals be affected?

A further complication is that political refugees are not illegals. Determining refugee status can be seen as arbitrary. All Cubans, for example, are considered political refugees, but Guatemalans fleeing civil war are not. So any mechanism regarding amnesty needs to be judged on its particulars.

An ironic aspect of the amnesty issue is that President Obama, who won strong electoral support from Hispanics (I use the term “Hispanics” rather than Latinos in the sense that it relates to language more clearly), has deported more Hispanic illegals than any of his three predecessors. Republicans have not been able to politically capitalize on this as many of their voters believe he has not expelled enough.

Although numerous differences exist between Hispanic immigrants from different regions, a broad range of issues affects almost all Hispanics. You indicate that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats provide Hispanics with viable solutions to the problems at hand. Most certainly, there is no political consensus as yet on what everyone says they want: immigration reform. In terms of political behavior, however, there is a clear distinction between the parties.

The majority of the Republican Party is more interested in border patrols, deportations, and building fences than long-term solutions. A number of red states (what a misnomer that is), have or propose laws that are clearly biased against all Hispanics. Arizona is notorious in this regard with Georgia a close second. These actions usually involve requiring people to carry proof of citizenship at all times and no, a driver’s license will not do. Similar strictures have been used to discourage voting by Hispanics.

The Democrats are highly supportive of raising the minimum wage while most Republicans are opposed. Many affected workers are Hispanics. Democrats support a wide range of social services used by Hispanics while the Republicans seek to cut those programs. Democrats strive to provide financial assistance to American-born college students of illegals, most Republicans oppose. Democrats have tried to facilitate voting procedures while Republicans have carried out a series of actions aimed at making voting by Hispanic citizens more difficult. The combination of these and other forces have brought the Hispanic vote to the Democrats. That vote was decisive in the last presidential election.

The Republican response to this dynamic has been anemic. At one level, it is recognized that to win close elections at the national level and in many states it is necessary to appeal to Hispanics. Too often this takes the form of token candidates whose main appeal is ethnicity rather than pragmatic policies.

Few Republicans have credibility among Hispanic voters. Most prominent among them is Jeb Bush. His policies while governor of Florida won him a sizeable Hispanic vote. Gov. Rick Perry (TX), despite being very conservative on most issues, also supports reforms that benefit Hispanics. But not even the best known Hispanic Republican, Senator Marco Rubio (FL), has succeeded in creating a program that rallies Hispanics to his presidential ambitions.

Most Americans do not realize that second -generation Hispanics use English as their primary language. Such usage is almost universal in the third generation: a typical American immigration pattern. As Greek-Americans, we know that our own immigrant history, like that of other European groups, involved many illegal entries. They did not destabilize America or make it lawless. There is no reason to think Hispanic patterns if addressed in a mature manner would be different.

WHAT’S YOUR OPINION?