Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Immigrant's Tale

So if immigration reform is a long-term winner for Democrats, why are Republicans so against it (where it = anything other than the punitive approach)? Whatever your opinions on Republicans policy-wise, they remain very good at the politics game.

Is it the tea partiers demanding it from Republicans, who must acquiesce or face a fate like Bob Bennett’s? This seems unlikely. I googled “tea party on immigration” and found something like tepid outrage on immigration, despite the punitive approach’s seeming natural fit with right-wing populism. Consider, for example, this San Diego Examiner post that berates tea party leaders for not including immigration; this article that believes tea partiers are “dabbling” in immigration. More examples are available. And the polling appears to support that idea as well. The big NYT poll of the tea party found that 53% of their tea party sample supported present or increased levels of immigration.

So if it’s not the tea party, where is it coming from?

The salient fact to keep in mind about the Republican Party is that its elected officials are predominantly Southern. The tea partiers are everywhere and so have diffuse views; the elected officials must respond their constituents, assuming they don’t have ambitions at national office. So, with that in mind, here’s an excerpt from 538 blog post:
It’s reasonably well understood that Hispanic immigration to the Deep South took off during the last decade. If you rank the states by the percentage increase in Hispanic population from 2000-2008, five of the top seven are in the South, with South Carolina (88.1%) ranked first, Arkansas fourth (82.1%), North Carolina fifth (79.8%), Georgia sixth (79.7%) and Kentucky seventh (76.3%). And in some states, the sheer number of Hispanics is reaching impressive heights, particularly for places with little or no prior diversity aside from African-Americans. Census estimates tell us there are now 777,000 Hispanics in Georgia, 685,000 in North Carolina, and 531,000 in Virginia.

While Hispanics are not distributed evenly in such states, nor are they disproportionately “hidden” in the anonymity of big cities. In my own home state of Georgia, it’s a rare small town that during the last decade hasn’t suddenly acquired an authentic family-owned Mexican restaurant or two, begun selling a few votive candles in convenience stores, or displayed signs and school instructional materials in Spanish. This has all happened very fast. In 1990, when visiting the north Georgia town of Gainesville, which bills itself as “The Poultry Capital of the World,” I was a bit surprised to spot a large sign at a used car dealer that simply said: Financiamos. Today Gainesville’s population is one-third Hispanic.

But even as Hispanics have become a regular (and to some, a disturbing) feature of Deep South life, they have not yet become a voting bloc significant enough to matter in all but scattered local elections. For a variety of reasons, including legal status, age, recent arrival and mobility, the percentage of southern Hispanics eligible to vote is very low. In fact, in the states of the Old Confederacy (excluding Florida and Texas), there were only two states as of 2006 in which Hispanics represented as much as 2% of eligible voters: Virginia at 2.8%, and Georgia at 2.3%. The Hispanic percentage of the population in these states in 2006 was, respectively, 6.8% and 7.4%.

So whereas in states with larger and more established Hispanic populations politicians considering anti-immigrant messages have to think seriously about blowback, there are no real negative consequences in the Deep South to offset the incentives for such rhetoric.

So with that in mind, consider that most Republican’s political savvy is vis-à-vis the solid South’s support. It’s a valuable asset—the South, politically, tends to be pretty uniform throughout its history from the top of the ticket to the bottom (whereas, say the Northeast has only recently begun to vote for Democrats en masse and nearly exclusively). But it does mean they have something of a blindness to needs not Southern.

It’s with that in mind that I want to point you to Zev Chafets’s profile of San Antonio’s mayor, Julian Castro, in the New York Times Magazine. The article accomplishes two things: first, by unconsciously (or perhaps consciously but submerged presenting Castro’s life in ways that mirror Barack Obama; second, by revealing enormous yet hidden ambition.

Castro, like Obama, is the product of America’s elite educational system (an idea that can be explored more in this classic Washington Monthly article), which produces a quotation from Julian’s brother that I think is important:
“Julián and I are just two guys from the bad side of San Antonio,” Joaquín told me. “When we went away to school, we didn’t know what to expect. At Stanford and Harvard, we were among all these people from the leadership class, people with fancy educations and pedigrees, and very often we were the only Hispanics in the classroom. But we listened to the people at Harvard, and I have to say, we were never overwhelmed.”
Generally, I wish this point would be repeated across the land to the Stuff White People Likes crowd so that they don’t fall into all those old stereotypes about helicopter parents and what-have-you, but that’s not the main point here. Specifically, what I think is important is that it gives minority politicians a way not to seem threatening to the social order. Perhaps interestingly, it means they really aren’t threatening to the social order, since, as Chafets makes clear, Castro tries very hard to seem like a moderate and really is a moderate in speech and deed (see, for example, his somewhat measured response against Arizona’s immigration law: “Texas has long been an example of how two neighboring countries can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way for the American economy. A law like Arizona’s would fly in the face of that history.”). And this is a trait shared by many of Castro’s fellow minority politicians who have been educated by elite institutions: Booker is basically a moderate, Obama is a moderate, etc. etc. It’s almost like the white man’s regulatory capture, heh heh heh.

The upside is that you get to speak to many audiences (as Harry Reid foresaw with that whole “Negro accent” quotation that was blown way out of proportion) with a high degree of credibility. Well, perhaps Castro can’t:
Paradoxically, Julián Castro’s appeal to fellow Hispanic voters may be limited by his own assimilation. Although he pronounces his name “HOO-lee-un,” he doesn’t really speak Spanish — a fact he isn’t eager to advertise. La Raza put a high premium on the mother tongue, but Rosie Castro spoke English to her sons, and Julián studied Latin and Japanese in school, while Joaquín studied Latin and German. A lack of Spanish fluency isn’t unusual in San Antonio, especially among Castro’s generation, but in the immigrant barrios of Houston and the colonias south of Interstate 10 down to the border, Spanish is the first and often only language. A Mexican-American with statewide political aspirations needs to be able to do more than pronounce his name correctly. Early in his administration, Castro assigned his chief of staff, Robbie Greenblum — a Jewish lawyer from the border town of Laredo whose own Spanish is impeccable — to discreetly find him a tutor. Rosie Castro’s son is now being taught Spanish by a woman named Marta Bronstein. Greenblum met her in shul.
This is funny, but one wonders why Castro allowed this detail to get out. Certainly not highly savvy to allow a reporter that kind of access (unless Chafets sussed it out himself, in which case well done sir.).

And a quick glance at Texas’s demographics here reveals why Castro might have so much trouble winning statewide and also why the immigration bill is so short-sighted: 36.5% of Texas’s population is Latino; 12% is black. Obviously Texas is quickly headed to majority-minority status, so it’s not hard to forecast a California-like fate for Texas (remember, as recently as the 1980s California was considered an electoral bastion for Republicans). So immigration politics really only has to peel off Texas in Democrats’ favor to be effective—that would permanently change the electoral math for the worse were Texas to become more like the Southwest than the South.

So we’ve arrived at the answer that Republicans really are shortsighted about their immigration reform position, but the real question is what sort of nation we’ll have after immigration reform and what sorts of politicians we’ll see because of it. Will we see Irish ward bosses or elite-educated types? I suspect the answer is that we’ll see more Julian Castroes than anything else, which is neither cause for celebration nor despair.

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