Union Tribune

August 11, 2002 

Both parties see Latinos as key to electoral success


WASHINGTON – Political pollster Sergio Bendixen revels in the
battle over the fastest-growing sector of the American electorate
– Latinos.

"Hispanics are still only 7 percent of the vote, but seem to be
getting 80 percent of the attention," said Bendixen, who
specializes in measuring the moods and preferences of Latino

"I don't see any other constituency being fought over with this
energy and at this high level."

The tug-of-war is taking on new urgency in the run-up to the
November elections, as Republicans and Democrats vie for
control of a narrowly divided Congress.

Last month, House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt of Missouri
sought to make it a bidding war, promising to push for a law that
would grant amnesty to as many as 8 million people living in the
United States illegally – most of them from Mexico and Central

Some Latino leaders are hoping Bush will make a counter-offer
this month when he hosts Mexican President Vicente Fox at his
Texas ranch.

Fox has pressed for an amnesty deal that includes a Mexican
commitment to crack down on those who smuggle immigrants
across the border. He has even suggested that U.S.-Mexico
relations may hinge on a new deal for illegal immigrants in the
United States, as well as for Mexicans who want to come as guest

"The meeting in Texas will set the tone for the fall campaigns,"
said Bendixen, a Democratic pollster. "The question is: Will
President Bush continue to be seen as a president fighting for the
interests of Hispanics, or as a hypocrite who is trying to
demagogue the issue."

The 23 million Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans
make up two-thirds of the U.S. Latino population, which during
the 1990s grew to 35.3 million. Bush is trying to woo them away
from what historian Rodolfo Acuna cited as a tradition that
nurtured them "to believe in the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Sacred
Heart and the party of Franklin D. Roosevelt."

The president has appointed Latinos to a range of high-level
positions in his administration, brought mariachis to the White
House for Cinco de Mayo, cultivated relations with
Spanish-language media, and delivered speeches in the Spanish
he learned as a border-state businessman and governor.

Bush's command of the language is flawed when he moves
beyond written speeches and such easy, winning formulations as
"Mi Casa Blanca es tu Casa Blanca." But he makes up for bad grammar with a Texas-bred charm that some observers liken to the touch former President Clinton had with African-Americans.

"When it comes to connecting with Hispanics, he's a natural," said
Armand Peschard-Sverdrup, who directs the Mexico program at
the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
"I don't know what it is exactly, but he's got it."

Gephardt is working on it. He has launched his own charm
offensive, hoping to win Latino hearts and votes not only for
November's congressional races but also for his anticipated
presidential bid in 2004.

Gephardt has traveled to Mexico, studied Spanish and sought
face time with the cameras from a Spanish-language television
network whose time is coveted by both major parties.

Gephardt made his most ostentatious move as he called for a
sweeping amnesty in a speech last month to the National Council
of La Raza. He received a standing ovation. But some
immigration experts viewed the speech as a ploy, pushing a
program too broad to have any chance of passage.

"I saw it as pure political opportunism," said Demetrios
Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute, a
Washington-based think tank that has been influential in
U.S.-Mexican negotiations aimed at an immigration deal.

Few Latino leaders expect Bush to match Gephardt's amnesty
bid. But many want him to revive a proposal the White House
floated a year ago to grant amnesty for about 3 million of the 8
million people living illegally in the United States.

That idea gained momentum during September's state visit by
Fox, who called for a deal to be wrapped up by year's end. It
fizzled a week later, as the terror attacks in New York and
Washington rewrote the national agenda and heightened fears
about those who cross borders illegally.

Now Cecilia Muñoz, vice president of La Raza, is warning
Democrats and Republicans alike that Latino voters expect
action to match rhetorical commitments, especially on

"We've been saying to both parties, in no uncertain terms, that
campaigns in our communities better not be about market," she
said. "They better be about policy. We intend to hold both
parties to that standard. The mariachis are nice, but that's not
going to make changes that need to be made."

Bendixen said that while Latino voters tend to be most attentive
to policy that affects working conditions, health care and
education, their concern for immigrants has become a focal
point – especially in the aftermath of California's Proposition

The 1994 initiative, passed by voters and later found
unconstitutional, tried to deny public services to undocumented
immigrants. It angered many Latinos, who claimed that they
were being scapegoated. They began to mobilize politically,
vowing to punish politicians who were unsympathetic to illegal

Bendixen's polling shows that about 75 percent of Latino voters
favor legalizing "undocumented immigrants that live, work and
pay taxes in the United States."

Those results are contradicted by a Zogby poll commissioned by
the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington-based
organization that opposes amnesty and wants to restrict
immigration. The Zogby poll presented the question in a
different way.

Fifty-one percent of the Latinos in the Zogby poll opposed
"amnesty for some or all of the 3 to 4 million illegal immigrants
from Mexico."

Much of the concern about amnesty reflects the broader
concern that the nation cannot accommodate the resettlement
each year of 1.2 million new immigrants – three-quarters of
them arriving legally.

Roy Beck, executive director of NumbersUSA, a
Washington-based restrictionist organization, warns that
immigration is the demographic engine that will drive the U.S.
population to 404 million at mid-century, from its current level
of about 280 million.

Beck warns that such growth will clog schools and roads,
generate urban sprawl and cause environmental havoc. While
advocates of amnesty say it would bring out of the shadows a
large group that has become indispensable to the economy, Beck
says it will flout current immigration law and stimulate more
immigration – both legal and illegal.

"Gephardt and Bush are trying to pick up votes on the margins
and hoping that the vast majority of voters they depend on won't
notice what they are doing or won't have anywhere else to go,"
he said.