I remember back in California in 1994, after an election where both state chambers were taken over by the Republicans and the Republican Governor, Pete Wilson, had handily won re-election promoting the anti-immigrant Prop 187 initiative. Yet to me it was clear that this was a pyrrhic victory for California Republicans and wrote a piece, called "The Future Belongs to Us," which predicted based on coming changing demographics, "when the results are broken down, they promise a much more progressive future for California." And within a few years, as Latinos and Asians registered in large numbers, Republicans in California have become an endangered species.
National Attacks on Immigrants: Today, just as new immigrants were activated by the anti-immigrant attacks in California, they are being spurred to becoming citizens nationally in the wake of post-911 assaults on civil liberties across the country and their votes could well decide the next election. While this demographic change is not the only issue going against Bush, it is a large and significant reason both Bush and the GOP are in deep political danger. Just as the Trent Lott affair reflected the party's increasing inability to straddle coded appeals to racism while smiling at non-racist moderate voters, Bush will find it increasingly hard to straddle appeals to anti-immigrant Republicans while making empty pledges of outreach to the Latino and Asian communities.
At the most basic level, each year the GOP faces a demographic shift in the voting population as greater and greater numbers of non-white teenagers gain the right to vote. In the 2000 census, 14-17 year olds were 36.4% non-white, while the general voting population that year was only 28% non-white. An additional 6 million non-whites will reach the age of 18 between 2000 and 2004.
The Citizenship Explosion: Now, not all of those new 18-year olds will have the right to vote (although many more of them will than their parents, since they often will have been born in this country and automatically qualify for citizenship). But that is why the more general upsurge in naturalization applications since 9/11 is so significant. In the eight-month period after 9/11, applications for citizenship soared. There were 519,523 new applications for citizenship between Oct. 1, 2001, and May 31, 2002 -- 65% more than the 314,971 applications received over the same period beginning in 2000. INS spokesmen compare this to the upsurge in applications in the mid-90s following Prop 187 and other anti-immigrant attacks.
Another similarity between today and the mid-90s is a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment, an INS spokesperson recently noted. ''There was a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric and legislation, which became a catalyst for people to realize they needed to protect themselves.'' After that naturalization wave in the mid-'90s, concentrated in California, Latino voting surged. Latinos grew to 11 percent of California voters, up from 8 percent in 1992. They went from 10 to 16 percent of Texas voters, and from 5 to 12 percent of Florida voters. The Bush INS has been using post-9/11 security excuses to slow granting citizenship, but they can only delay, not stop the wave of new citizens that will be able to register and vote in the next two years.
The Durability of Latino Partisanship: While Bush has avoided the more overt rhetoric against immigrants (a reason he was a candidate for president in 2000 and California's Pete Wilson was a pariah who no Republican wanted to be seen with), it is still unlikely he can make serious inroads into the Latino population, especially post-9/11 with the new attacks on immigrants by his Justice Department and his backing away from promises of amnesty.
A widely cited conservative analysis by the Center for Immigration Studies recently argued that not only do Democrats lead Republicans by a comfortable margin in the partisan identification of Latino voters, but the gap is even wider among immigrant Latinos who are now just becoming citizens. As many of these non-citizens naturalize, the political affiliation of Latinos is likely to shift still further toward the Democratic Party. More generally, Latinos become more Democratic, not less, with increasing education and tenure in the United States and, even when they get wealthier, Latino partisanship does not substantially change. The problem for the GOP is that Latinos' partisanship is tied not merely to immigration issues but to identification with the core of Democratic economic and social policies.
Asians Turn Progressive: And this GOP problem with immigrant communities is expanding rapidly to include the Asian-American community. Attacks on Latino immigrants in the mid-'90s led to a surge in Asian-American naturalization and voting as well and a shift towards the Democrats. Clinton got just 29% of Asian-American vote in 1992, while Gore got 54% of Asian vote (and Nader surprisingly scored his largest percentage base with Asian Americans with 4% of them voting for him, for a total of 58% progressive vote among Asian Americans in 2000.)
And post-9/11 attacks on parts of the Asian community, especially South Asians, just accelerated these trends. Exit polls in New York City in 2002 showed that only 22% of Asian voters polled gave favorable ratings to Bush. And across the country, the potential of the Asian-American vote is tremendous, since in many areas less than 20% of eligible Asian Americans turned out to vote. Part of this is due to the continual violations of law by many election officials that refuse to stock bilingual ballots or offer assistance. The U.S. Commis-sion on Civil Rights last year released a report on the 2000 voting debacle in Florida, finding that many people for whom English is a second language were unable to vote because election officials refused to offer bilingual assistance. If progressives can push for greater bilingual support for voters, the significance of the Asian-American shift in voting towards Democrats will only be accentuated.
And there has been a large expansion of voter outreach to new immigrants across the country. New organizations are forming and expanding efforts to naturalize, register and get out the vote among these new immigrant communities.
Labor Backs New Immigrant Voters: One key tactic for progressives is to not allow Bush to straddle his verbal outreach to new immigrant communities while attacking them through anti-immigrant roundups and denial of rights. A new movement plans "Freedom Rides" this spring for legalization of immigrants, deliberately evoking the history of the freedom rides that demanded the right to vote for blacks denied equal status. This effort is backed by major church, community and union groups such as the Hotel Employees & Restaurant Employees union. This builds on the AFL-CIO officially changing its national policy in 2000 to support amnesty and legalization for undocumented immigrants.
With union mobilization reinforcing the ongoing upsurge in new immigrant, Latino and Asian-American voting, Bush will be facing millions of new voters seeking his defeat in 2004. By supporting bilingual outreach and amnesty efforts like the Freedom Rides for legalization, progressives can help accelerate these trends supporting progressive electoral victories in coming years.
Nathan Newman is a union lawyer, longtime community activist, a vice president of the New York City National Lawyers Guild and author of Net Loss [Penn State Press] on Internet policy and economic inequality. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or see www.nathannewman.org.