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America’s largest and fastest-growing ethnic group recorded another political milestone last week when voters in Maryland – a major receiving state for Central American immigrants, many of them illegal aliens – elected Salvadoran-born Victor Ramirez as their first Latino state senator.
Ramirez, a Democrat who’s served in the Maryland legislative assembly for the past eight years, defeated incumbent David Harrington by a 2-1 margin in Prince George’s County, a largely African-American political jurisdiction lying on the outskirts of the nation’s capital.
Ramirez is expected to win easily against his Republican opponent in the general election this November, despite his outspoken pro-immigration politics and growing pressure from the state GOP to institute an Arizona-style crackdown.
But Ramirez’ victory also highlights the disjuncture between Latino demographic strength and the group’s relative weakness, politically. Nationwide, about 200 state assemblymen, and with the Ramirez win, some 60 state senators, are Latino. That means less than 4% of the country’s 7,200 elected state representatives are of Hispanic-orgin. Five years ago, the figure was just 3%.
By contrast, Latinos comprise almost 16% of the US population and could well top 25% by the year 2025. Still, only 9% of US voters are Latino, and just two dozen US congressmen and a single US senator are of Hispanic origin. Only one Latino, Cuban-American Marco Rubio, a Republican and a Tea Party favorite, is running for the Senate in this year’s mid-terms.
There’s actually good reason for this continuing Latino "lag." Only half of the nation’s 48 million Latinos are US citizens, and without citizenship, Latinos can’t legally vote. Another factor is their relative youth. At least a third of the Latino population is below the legal voting age of 18.
And while Latino turnout has improved dramatically in recent years, especially during presidential election years, Latino registration levels remain relatively low. Many Latino immigrants with green cards remain unwilling to apply for naturalization, in part, because they continue to identify more strongly with their native lands. There’s also the issue of cost: the fee for a citizenship application has more than doubled in recent years. For Latino families struggling just to pay their rent, investing in your own political future can seem like an unaffordable luxury.
Add all these factors together and Latinos are still "under-performing" politically by a substantial margin compared to other ethnic voter groups.
Latino political weakness at the state level has undoubtedly made it easier for anti-immigration groups to pass measures like Arizona’s infamous SB 1070. Since 2006, over thirty state legislatures have approved hundreds of laws denying aliens access to jobs, driver’s licenses, health services, and tuition benefits. Most of these legislatures have no Latino representatives.
Even traditionally progressive, Latino-friendly Maryland has begun trending conservative on immigration. Prince George’s County, the district that helped elect Ramirez, recently agreed to collaborate with federal authorities in the identification and deportation of illegal aliens through the infamous Section 287(g) and Secure Communities progroams. And anti-immigration groups like "Save Our State" are pushing authorities to close down day laborer hiring sites for illegal aliens and to investigate grassroots social service organizations like Casa of Maryland that have spoken out in defense of illegal immigrants.
Ramirez’s presence in the state legislature is likely to influence whether Maryland and the federal government continue moving in this direction. Local pro-immigration groups, with whom Ramirez maintains close ties, enjoy unusual access to the Obama administration due to their proximity to Washington, and to their close alliance with advocacy groups like the National Council for La Raza, whose former vice president is a top White House aide.
Last month, heavy lobbying by these groups was largely responsible Obama’s decision to ease federal enforcement against illegal aliens who haven’t committed serious crimes. That decision has outraged Maryland anti-immigration groups, who are likely to target Ramirez when he seeks re-election. Undeterred, Ramirez says he plans to keep speaking out on the need for more humane immigration policies.
Ramirez’s win is also likely to spur efforts in Maryland and elsewhere to expand Latino voter registration and to push more Latino candidates for state office. Ramirez managed to convince Prince George’s County’s mostly African-American population to back his pro-immigration candidacy, despite complaints from some Black leaders that Latinos undermine African-Americans in the job market.
That’s a powerful example for Philadelphia, Detroit, and other African-American-dominated cities where conservative groups, with the support of the Tea Party, are trying to exploit inter-ethnic tensions to justify nativist policies. Few of these cities have Latino representatives like Ramirez in their state legislature.
In addition to Ramirez win, two other Latinos just won election to the Maryland state assembly. And two Latinos currently serve on local country councils, one in Prince George’s, the other in neighboring Montgomery County, another liberal jurisdiction that’s historically been friendly to immigrants. That brings to five the number of Latinos, mainly Central Americans, serving in elective office in the area, where close to 20% of the local population is of Hispanic origin.
Expect those numbers to grow, and soon, thanks to a recently announced Spanish-language voter education drive. With nativism on the rise, it’s none too soon.
STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org