More Than Marches: Growing Latino Power is all About the Demographics

Most of the people who know me think of me as a fiery activist for immigrant rights, but I would like to confess that I have a secret, quiet quirk.

I love demographers. Doug Massey of Princeton; Audrey Singer of Brookings; Dowell Myers of the University of Southern California; and Chicago's own Rob Paral of Notre Dame: Wow! Superstars and heroes, one and all!

I know that these demographers are an understated, tweedy sort of crew, and I doubt that they will ever make the cover of Rolling Stone. But I have discovered that they have a wondrous ability to shine a light on the future and, just as usefully for advocates and activists, they also can paint a road map for political extermination campaigns.

On Thursday, May 1, most of the television crews in the country were out filming the latest immigration marches. I was there myself in Chicago, enjoying the great parade and doing the rabble-rousing speaker thing. But that day, tucked in the inner folds of the nation's newspapers, the demographers were using their numbers to paint an even fuller picture of the future.

Between 2000 and 2007 the nation's Latino population grew from 35.7 million to 45.5 million, an impressive 27 percent jump. Even more significant was that, in the last two years, 62 percent of this growth has been through births, not immigration. In other words, to those who would rather that the newcomers just go home: Sorry. Too late. This is home!

Are these numbers a good thing or a bad thing? Well, like everything else, it depends.

Writing from my particular vantage point as a 52 year old baby boomer, these Latino numbers look pretty good. It turns out that the average white in America is 40.8 years old and the average Hispanic is 27.8 years old. Dowell Myers points out that currently there are some 23 seniors for every 100 workers. However in 20 years (when I am 72) the ratio will have changed drastically to 41 seniors for every 100 workers! The answer to the old Beatles song about who will feed me when I'm 64 is already clear -- Latino immigrants and their children. In addition, undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $7 -8 billion a year into the Social Security Trust Fund -- money they rarely collect -- and a recent report by the Social Security Administration credits them with reducing the long term deficit by 15 percent. Speaking as an aging boomer, these young Latinos look great to me.

But if I were a Republican politician, I might feel differently. Unfortunately for the GOP, it appears that the Republicans don't have a demographer on staff. They continue to allow their party to be defined by the anti-immigrant bellowing of the likes of Congressman Tom Tancredo or Jim Oberweis, for example. Oberweis is a national leader in the anti-immigrant movement who just lost what was considered the solidly Republican seat of former House Speaker Dennis Hastert. If millionaire Oberweis had used his fortune to buy himself a demographer, he might have been warned that the suburban Illinois district is over 29 percent immigrants and their children!

Demographer Rob Paral just released a report on the potential immigrant vote in California. He found that immigrants and their children are poised to become 1/3 of our nation's most populous state's voters. Just as significantly, these voters are a third of the electorate in twenty percent of California's Republican statehouse districts. A similar analysis by Paral a few years ago in Illinois drew a road map for political action for immigrant advocates. Since 2002 the Republicans in Illinois have lost seven statehouse seats and Hastert's Congressional seat in areas that have large concentrations of immigrants. New suburban Democrats have names like Hernandez, Crespo, and Chapa la Via.

But in Congress right now the Republican Party continues to bang the anti-immigrant drum, pushing for a vote on the Shuler - Tancredo SAVE Act, a harsh 'deportation first' immigration bill. They don't appear to have a staff demographer who can warn them about our nation's changing electorate -- for example the 1.4 million applications for citizenship last year, a jump of more than 100 percent over the previous year!

So until the GOP can acquire a vice similar to mine and finds a demographer to love, their numbers will continue to decline. It is a pity for them, really. Demographers could help them set good immigrant policy in education, identify good investments to be made in English learning, and find gaps in our workforce to be filled with strategic training.

Plus a really good demographer is a great thing for every politician, because they know how to count!

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