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Idea for Third Party Animates and Divides Latinos

Jos? Cuervo for President?

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

In recent weeks, some top Latino Democrats, appalled at their party’s failure to push an legalization bill through Congress, have announced their intention to form an independent "Tequila Party" to demand more aggressive bipartisan action on immigration reform. On its face, it sounds like a cute and clever idea. And maybe even a bold one. But does the formation of a Latino-based third party movement – and one organized around a single issue, to boot – actually make sense politically?

The head of the oldest Latino advocacy group in Nevada, Fernando Romero, says he and his closest advisors came up with the idea shortly after they and other state Latino groups helped Senate majority leader Harry Reid narrowly win his re-election bid. And they never really expected the idea to gain legs. But watching the conservative Tea party challenge President Obama from the right on health care, and then successfully demand attention and respect from the GOP, got them wondering. Why can’t we do the same thing on immigration, only from the left?

And now, five weeks later, it seems like everyone in liberal Latino circles is talking about the idea, though not necessarily favorably.

Some, in fact, have disparaged it. Associating Latinos with tequila borders on a dangerous stereotype, they say, like the fast-food chain Taco Bell using a talking chihuahua to try to win over Latino consumers. And even as a stereotype, the Tequila image only fits Latinos of Mexican descent, admittedly the vast majority of US Latinos, but by no means all, they note.

And of course, there’s nothing about a Tequila party that conjures up a heroic legacy of citizen protest against an oppressive national government like the Tea party concept does. If anything, a Tequila party suggests mere festivity – or worse, drunken revelry – rather than serious moral or political purpose. Is that the image that disaffected Latinos on the left really want to convey? Hardly, critics say.

But take away the abel, and many Latinos who have supported Obama and the Democrats the past two years agree that they’ve arrived at a major crossroads and may need to reassess their current allegiances. They’ve watched the president and other top Democrats like Reid promise again and again to address comprehensive immigration reform only to fail continually to prioritize the issue or risk significant capital to push reform legislation forward.

And now, having watched Republicans recapture the House, there’s near-despair that the immigration reform cause may well be lost, not only for the remainder of Obama’s first term, but perhaps for many years to come. And all of this at the same time that Latinos have borne the brunt of the current recession with an unemployment rate nearly double the national average.

For Obama’s growing critics, including Rep. Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, as well as major figures in the national Hispanic media like Jorge Ramos of Univision, a "break" with Obama and the Democrats over immigration wouldn’t necessarily mean the formation of an actual third party anymore than the Tea party, for all its tough talk, means a formal break, politically, with the GOP.

But like the Tea party, pro-reform Latinos could decide to promote the immigration reform agenda on their own timetable, and even negotiate side deals on immigration with national, state, and local politicians regardless of their party affiliation. And they could, as Gutierrez says, "take it to the streets," with a rising tide of civil disobedience actions targeting Democrats and Republicans alike.

In fact, to a certain extent, that’s already happened. Just look at the recent grassroots campaign in support of the DREAM Act, a measure that would legalize some 2 million illegal immigrant youth who migrated to the US with their parents. For months, young students without legal papers have staged highly publicized "coming out" parties, daring immigration authorities to arrest and deport them, while others have conducted "sit-ins" in congressional offices, including the offices of sympathetic Democrats like Gutierrez, to highlight their disgust with congressional foot-dragging on reform.

For some Latino activists, that’s only the beginning. Harkening back to the struggles of African-Americans in the 1960s, they now see immigration reform – especially a legalization push – as the next great "civil rights" crusade, and the perfect way to bring millions of disenfranchised voters – illegal immigrants who gain citizenship – into the political process. And they suspect that only escalating street protest, and public criticism of both parties – not more polite bargaining with one – will get them the recognition and the respect – and the formal legal status – they deserve.

And how will the rest of America respond? Black civil rights crusaders were vilified by conservatives, of course, and it was left to Black churches and sympathetic whites to stand up to Southern segregationists, just as some of these same progressive groups say they should stand up to immigration "nativists" today. And they are confident that millions of mainstream Americans who say they support a path to legalization – while currently endorsing stepped-up immigration enforcement – could be won over to the justness of their cause.

But not all Latinos, even progressive Latinos, agree. One problem they see is that by linking Latinos and immigration so closely together, the larger Latino agenda on education, jobs, and health care, or even small business development, will become submerged in bitter single-issue crusade that will alienate moderate and even some liberal Democrats who would otherwise provide critical support to Latinos on a wide range of issues besides immigration.

Another problem is the possibility that an aggressive single-issue movement could draw unwanted attention to the largely submerged competition and tension that currently exists between Latinos and African-Americans (and some working class Whites) over access to low-skilled jobs in a number of key industries, like construction and food services. Right now, the shared umbrella of the Democratic Party has largely kept those divisions from spilling out into open inter-ethnic conflict.

But take that common umbrella away and a hard political rain could fall, some warn.

And where would Latino liberals get the funding to support their burgeoning new movement? In theory, the same place so many others do ? through Internet fundraising and individual political donations. But without more establishment funding – from rogue Democrats and even from some Republicans anxious to divide Democrats from one of their key voter bases – it’s unlikely that a Tequila party could stay in the field for long. The last major Latino initiative of this kind – the La Raza Unida Party of the 1970s – ran candidiates at the state and local level, but all of them lost and the party soon withered.

That said, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Tequila party idea as nothing more than a lark. The tens of thousands of "RSVPs" Romero has already received from disenchanted Latinos nationwide are clearly a shot across the bow of Obama and the Democrats. And with more and more top Republicans – including 2012 presidential prospects Newt Gingrich and Jeb Bush – reaching out to Latino voters, while urging moderation on immigration reform, further displays of "independence" by Latinos – Tequila party or not – are likely to increase their leverage with both parties.

Even if their cause – now truncated to a partial legalization program like the DREAM Act – seems all but dead for now.

STEWART J. LAWRENCE is a Washington, DC-based an immigration policy specialist.  He can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com